In her 60 years as a Roman Catholic, Nancy O'Brien said, she'd never seen anything like it. There in the church bulletin at St. Philip Neri in Lafayette Hill, Pa., was an item urging parishioners to pray the Election Novena, available at www.electionnovena.org.
The notice cited Pope John Paul II's exhortation to Americans to "guarantee the right to life" and sought daily recitation of the rosary until the election "to overcome the culture of death." To O'Brien, those were buzzwords for "pray for pro-life candidates," an impression the Web site confirmed.
The Election Novena, started by Catholics in Green Bay, Wis., uses prayer the way others use bumper stickers -- as a partisan tool. It is not alone.
With religion playing a high-profile role this election season, tax-exempt prayer sites such as Pray the Vote, Prayer for America and Nineveh Journey are popping up on the Internet. Unlike conventional interest groups, they believe people can influence the outcome by giving up television, by eating bread and water for dinner, and, of course, by praying fervently.
The prayer site 40 Days USA seeks, in language familiar to evangelicals, a nationwide "crying out to God" for the election of "God-fearing men and women" and the country's "deliverance and safe passage into future days."
To O'Brien, an active member of her parish, encouraging such prayer in the church bulletin was "clearly political, a crossing of the line that separates church and state." It didn't matter that no office seekers were named, O'Brien said, because it's known that the Republican president is antiabortion and his Democratic challenger advocates abortion rights.
"I'm all for prayer," O'Brien said, "and I'm not trying to be troublesome. I just think this is going down a slippery slope."
The federal tax code prohibits religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, the theory being that organizations that don't have to pay taxes shouldn't influence elections.
But prayer sites are careful not to name names or solicit campaign donations, apparently in an effort to pass legal muster with the Internal Revenue Service, whose primary concern is money.
The IRS "is interested in tax issues," said Bill Cressman, IRS spokesman in Philadelphia.
"If an entity has taxable income, we want it to pay the taxes it owes," Cressman said. "If it's tax-exempt, we want it to adhere to the rules that allow it to be tax-exempt."
Those rules permit tax-exempt organizations, both religious and nonreligious, to advocate on issues, Cressman said, but not to advocate for or against candidates.
As an example, last month Catholic Answers, a lay group in San Diego, published a Voter's Guide for Serious Catholics on the general-interest Web site www.catholic.com. Just as the prayer sites do, the voter's guide declared its opposition to candidates who espouse certain positions -- in this case, abortion, euthanasia, fetal stem-cell research, human cloning, and homosexual marriage. Also posted was a letter from a law firm saying the voter's guide complies with IRS regulations.
Is it possible for prayer to run afoul of the IRS? Cressman declined to deal in hypotheticals, saying, "Every case is very much a test of facts and circumstances."
If the positions advocated by prayer Web sites tend to be conservative, it may be because liberals are more likely to support strict church-state separation. O'Brien does. Last year, she ran for a seat on the Colonial School District board in Montgomery County, Pa. -- and when someone put her campaign literature in the back of the church, O'Brien removed it.
"I took it to the pastor," she said. "I told him it was not appropriate."
But for organizations such as Pray the Vote, the whole idea is to incorporate spiritual beliefs into civic life. Pray the Vote was launched in June by a Phoenix-based organization that, soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, also founded the Presidential Prayer Team to pray for the Bush administration.
Nineveh Journey isn't shy about its mission -- a national conversion manifested "by the election of a pro-life president and super-majority in the House and Senate."
O'Brien prefers keeping God and politics separate.
"I really thought it all was settled in 1960, when John F. Kennedy refused to talk about religion because he said it had nothing to do with running for office," she said.
That was before candidates found that professing piety didn't necessarily damage their standing in the polls and might even enhance it.
In July 2003, televangelist Pat Robertson kicked up a stir when his Web site www.cbn.com invited prayers for three Supreme Court justices -- prayers that "God will inspire them to retire."
A year later, Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sandra Day O'Connor are still there.
As someone once said, no prayer ever goes unanswered, but sometimes the answer is no.