The letter did not tell members which side of the issue to take, only to study the church's "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," a document that endorses one man/one woman as the ideal for marriage.
Whether Mormons favor or oppose the potential change, the letter said, they should push for "a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith" that would protect religious groups "from being required to support or perform same-sex marriages or from having to host same-sex marriages or celebrations in their facilities; and protect individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages."
Ruth Todd, spokeswoman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said LDS officials at the faith's Salt Lake City headquarters "are aware of the letter recently read in local Relief Society and Priesthood meetings in Hawaii."
"The Church's positions on these issues are well established," she wrote in an email, "including our encouragement for members to be good citizens and to be involved in their communities. As the stake presidents' letter says, members in Hawaii have been asked to study these issues and to consider becoming involved as private citizens."
Owen Matsunaga, one of those stake presidents over a number of Mormon congregations and the church's spokesman in Hawaii, affirmed that stance, saying that "senior church leaders … are certainly aware of the issues in Hawaii and elsewhere in the world, and are available to us to provide expertise as needed, but expect local leaders and members to make decisions specific to local circumstances."
"Our position in Hawaii," Matsunaga wrote in an email, "is entirely consistent with the church's doctrine and in harmony with this pattern."
This new approach in Hawaii is "significant," said Quin Monson, a political scientist at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. "It doesn't seem to be asking for direct involvement in the direction of the legislation, but asking people to defend religious liberty."
It echoes sentiments unveiled on the LDS Church's website last week, including the belief that "essential freedoms of conscience, embedded in religious liberty, must be diligently preserved and protected."
The letter's language seems to "signal a kind of resignation that there's a shift in society that we can't stop," Monson said, "but we can ask for exceptions."
It's far different from the tenor and tactics the Utah-based faith unleashed in 2008 to help pass California's Proposition 8, which limited marriage to a man and a woman. In that case, the initial letter came for the governing LDS First Presidency and directed members to "do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time."
Mormons helped raise millions for Prop 8, and the measure passed, only to be overturned by the courts.
Latter-day Saints, who account for more than 5 percent of Hawaii's population, also quietly worked to defeat the Aloha State's push, in the mid-1990s, for gay civil unions.
Mitch Mayne, a gay Mormon in San Francisco, is disappointed to see his church re-enter the marriage-equality fray.
But Mayne, who serves in a leadership position in his LDS congregation, is pleased that the letter's language "is much more softly worded than what we saw during Prop 8" and that it acknowledges that Mormons might take different positions on the issue.
"I don't think we can discount all the change that is happening inside the LDS Church," he said. "Progress happens in spirals. That means some days it looks like we are going backwards, but we are not. Progress will continue to happen until we get to where our Savior wants us to be."
Charles Haynes, a First Amendment scholar in Washington, D.C., believes the Mormon emphasis on religious freedom is a good way for people of faith to move forward.
"People on the left and on the right believe that same-sex marriage is inevitable; the momentum is all in that direction," said Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. "The best thing [believers] can do is to protect religious freedom as they understand it in this new reality."
Whatever an owner's personal beliefs, if a business opens its door to the public, Haynes said, it will not be able to withhold its services from gays.
As to whether churches themselves will be forced to perform or host same-sex weddings, Haynes said, "that will never happen until the First Amendment is repealed."
The threat of such governmental coercion, he said, is "a red herring to frighten people."
Nor does Haynes believe that pastors or Mormon authorities will be barred from condemning homosexuality from the pulpit.
"This is the freest society on Earth for religious people," he said. "Protecting the rights of gay and lesbian people will not change that."
LDS leaders' letter to Hawaiian members:
"We have received a number of questions in the last few months regarding proposed legislation that would redefine the relationship and nature of marriage in Hawaii.
"As members of the Church we should be actively engaged in worthy causes that will affect our communities and our families. This legislation will directly affect both. Members are encouraged to study this legislation prayerfully and then as private citizens contact your elected representatives in the Hawaii Legislature to express your views about the legislation. As you do so, you may want to review "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" and other Church publications available on the Church website at lds.org. You may also wish to consider donating your time or resources to one of the community organizations addressing this issue.
"Whether or not you favor the proposed change, we hope that you will urge your elected representatives to include in any such legislation a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith. Such an exemption should:
" Protect religious organizations and officials from being required to support or perform same-sex marriages or from having to host same-sex marriages or celebrations in their facilities; and
" Protect individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages.
"This is an important issue. As you stake presidency, we urge every family to discuss this issue together and then respond as you feel appropriate. Thank you for your support and faithful service. We pray that the Lord will bless and protect you and your families always."