Nine Supreme court justices are considering whether to take up a series of cases concerning same-sex marriage as the issues moves from the ballot box to the courts.
No decision is expected Friday on the two issues -- the federal Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage in California -- but an announcement is possible early next week.
The meeting comes three weeks after voters backed same-sex marriage in three states and defeated a ban in a fourth and represents a shift in the fight over same-sex marriage from the ballot box to the Supreme Court. The justices are meeting to decide whether they should deal sooner -- rather than later -- with the claim that the Constitution gives people the right to marry regardless of sexual orientation.
The court also could duck the ultimate question for now and instead focus on a narrower but still important issue: whether Congress can prevent legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits otherwise available to married couples.
Any cases probably would be argued in March, with a decision expected by the end of June.
In California, federal courts have struck down the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, but that ruling has not taken effect while the issue is being appealed.
The biggest issue the court could decide to confront comes in the dispute over California's Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples in California could marry. The case could allow the justices to decide whether the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection means that the right to marriage cannot be limited to heterosexuals.
A decision in favor of same-sex marriage could set a national rule and overturn every state constitutional provision and law banning same-sex marriages. A ruling that upheld California's ban would be a setback for same-sex marriage proponents in the nation's largest state, although it would leave open the state-by-state effort to allow gays and lesbians to marry.
In striking down Proposition 8, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals crafted a narrow ruling that said because same-sex couples in California already had been given the right to marry, the state could not later take it away. The ruling studiously avoided any sweeping pronouncements.
But if the high court ends up reviewing the case, both sides agree that the larger constitutional issue would be on the table, although the justices would not necessarily have to rule on it.
Same-sex marriage is legal, or will be soon, in nine states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington -- and the District of Columbia. Voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington approved gay marriage earlier this month.
But 31 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. North Carolina was the most recent example in May. In Minnesota earlier this month, voters defeated a proposal to enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage in that state's constitution.