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 met Friday to discuss 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.

There was no announcement about the court’s plans Friday. The next opportunity for word on gay marriage cases is Monday.

Any cases would be argued in March or April, 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 last month.

But 31 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit same-sex marriage. North Carolina was the most recent example in May. In Minnesota last month, voters defeated a proposal to enshrine a ban on gay marriage in that state’s constitution.

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.