WASHINGTON — The running fight over gay marriage is shifting from the ballot box to the Supreme Court.
Three weeks after voters backed same-sex marriage in three states and defeated a ban in a fourth, the justices are meeting today 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 gay Americans from receiving federal benefits otherwise available to married couples.
The court could announce its plans as soon as this afternoon. Any cases probably would be argued in March, with a decision expected by the end of June.
Gay 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.
The biggest issue the court could decide to confront comes in the dispute over California's Proposition 8, the constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians 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 gay marriage would set a national rule and overturn every state constitutional provision and law banning same-sex marriages.