The Supreme Court took no action Friday on a pending series of appeals over the divisive issue of same-sex marriage.
The justices had a closed-door conference to consider whether to accept for review several challenges to federal and state laws restricting the ability of gay and lesbian couples to legally wed.
But the court, without explanation, had nothing to report on the pending appeals. It was perhaps a sign it needed more time to consider the complex legal and constitutional questions.
If the high court has merely delayed consideration of the same-sex marriage cases, it may be prepared to revisit them as early as next Friday, when the justices hold another private conference.
The political, social, and legal stakes of this long-simmering debate would once again put the high court at the center of national attention, a contentious encore to its summer ruling upholding the massive health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama.
Three separate issues on same-sex marriage confront the justices, including federal benefits, state benefits and state referendums.
Although there was no certainty the court was prepared to announce it would be tackling the issue, there was building anticipation among advocacy groups on both sides of the debate.
The Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders had set up temporary offices in a building next door to the high court to await word. Officials there privately expressed a measure of anxiety as the hours passed with no announcement.
The organization represents a broad group of gay and lesbian individuals and families in New England who were denied a range of federal benefits under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
For federal purposes under the 1996 law, marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman. That means federal tax, Social Security, pension, and bankruptcy benefits, and family medical leave protections -- do not apply to gay and lesbian couples.
Earlier this month, voters in Maryland, Washington, and Maine approved same-sex marriage, adding to the six states and the District of Columbia that already have done so. Minnesota voters also rejected an effort to ban such unions through a constitutional amendment.
The court on Friday did accept for review two unrelated cases, including an appeal of whether human genes are patentable.