WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court will meet behind closed doors Friday on whether to hear cases that could lead to a more comprehensive ruling on the divisive issue of same-sex marriage.
The pivotal meeting of the nine justices comes the same week that gays and lesbians began tying the knot in Florida - the 36th of 50 US states to recognise marriage equality, along with the capital Washington.
Opinion polls suggest a majority of Americans accept same-sex marriage, but opposition among conservatives and some faith groups, including the Catholic Church, remains strong.
The top court will consider if it should hear cases that address whether individual states have the right to ban same-sex marriages, or if such bans are unconstitutional.
In a landmark decision in June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a law denying federal benefits to homosexual couples by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
In doing so, it cleared the way for married gay and lesbian couples to enjoy the same rights and privileges under federal law as their straight counterparts.
But it stopped short of legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, leaving that question to the states.
At that time, only 12 states plus Washington recognised same-sex marriages.
Strides across US
Same-sex unions in the state of Florida - with its huge swath of southern rural conservatism juxtaposed by large areas of urban liberalism - met with years of resistance before finally being allowed this week.
"With Florida, 70 per cent of Americans - more than 216 million people - will live in a marriage equality state," said Chad Griffin, who leads Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian rights group.
With a few exceptions, the states that have refused to marry same-sex couples have lost in court, including in front of the Supreme Court.
Among the US states which continue to ban marriage between people of the same gender, just five recently won some encouragement for their cause.
The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has upheld same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.
So the Supreme Court could soon take up at least one of four applications filed by same-sex couples seeking to tie the knot in those four states, as well as a fifth application from Louisiana.
And in a scheduling twist of fate, the Fifth Circuit, which handles much of the south, on Friday is to take up same-sex marriage bans in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, the second most populous US state.
Meanwhile "since early October, a split has developed on the constitutional question between federal courts of appeals, increasing the prospect that the Supreme Court will now step in," said ScotusBlog expert Lyle Denniston.
Symbolism in test-case
Faced with conflicting rulings around the United States, the Supreme Court justices have an opportunity to address the central issue at hand: does the US Constitution guarantee same-sex couples the right to marry?
The question has been up in the air since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004.
"If the justices do grant review of the constitutional question this month, with a hearing likely in April, they will be facing the question in a situation where no more than 14 states retain a ban on same-sex marriages," Denniston added.
Still, "the symbolic effect of a test case on assuring same-sex marriages nationwide would be profound in a historic sense," he stressed.
In October, the high court declined to take up the national level issue for a first time.
But it also rejected appeals from the Republican governors who sought to stop gays and lesbians from marrying in their states.
Analysts believe that at least four of the nine justices - the minimum needed for it to move forward - may be leaning toward taking up the issue of same-sex rights on the national (federal) level.
On Friday, the justices will be looking privately at the five appeals on the table from homosexuals who want to marry in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Louisiana. Unless they need extra time, they could announce that day, or the following week, which - if any - of the cases they will take up.
Their ruling would be expected in June.