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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 Friday 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 Friday 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. Federal courts in California 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.

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 gay marriage in that state's constitution.


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