Foreign nationals coming to the United States only to work in a religious capacity may obtain an R-1 visa, which is for temporary religious workers.

Because of fraud, Immigration agents now visit the religious institiution in every case before a religious worker petition is approved, to make sure the case is genuine.  So, when the Immigration agent comes, smile and be friendly!

Religious workers include ministers of religion who are ordained by a denomination to lead religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by members of the clergy, for example administering the sacraments. The term does not apply to lay preachers. Aside from ministers, religious workers also include those pursuing a calling to religious life with a lifelong commitment. Examples include nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters. Additionally, people coming to the United States to work in a religious occupation can also obtain R status. A religious occupation is one which relates to a traditional religious function. Examples include liturgical workers, religious instructors or cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals, missionaries, religious translators, or religious broadcasters. It does not include janitors, maintenance workers, clerks, fund raisers, solicitors of donations, or other jobs which could be filled by someone lacking a religious education and training.

In order to obtain an R visa, the applicant must be a member of a religious denomination having an authentic nonprofit religious organization in the U.S. The religious denomination and its affiliate, must be exempt from taxation, or the religious denomination qualifies for tax- exempt status. The applicant must have been a member of the denomination for at least two years. Religious workers may spend up to five years in the United States in R status. If they again wish to obtain R status, they must spend at least one year outside the U.S.

All religious workers must now first obtain an approved R petition before applying at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for an R visa. There is no requirement that applicants for R visas have a residence abroad which they have no intention of abandoning, but they must intend to leave the United States at the end of their lawful stay.

A temporary religious worker’s spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may follow the religious worker to the U.S. They may study but may not accept employment in the United States.


To obtain a green card as a religious worker, the alien has to show that he or she has been a member of a religious organization for the past two years, and that he or she wishes to immigrate to the U.S. in order to work as a minister or in another religious occupation or vocation for the religious organization.

The religious worker must have religious training or education. Religious workers include liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals, missionaries, religious translators, and religious broadcasters. Aliens can also obtain a religious worker visa to work as a nun or monk.

The alien must show that he or she has been working for the religious organization for the past two years. If the alien has been working for a religious organization overseas, he or she must prove that the overseas religious organization is affiliated with, or the same religious denomination as, the religious organization in the United States which is sponsoring the alien.

For example, the Catholic Church is a worldwide organization, all Catholic churches have the Pope as their leader and are affiliated with the Vatican in Rome. Thus, a Catholic church in the United States can sponsor a priest who has worked for two years for a Catholic church in Europe. If a church in the United States wishes to sponsor someone who has worked in a religious capacity for a church in Europe, it must be proven that the church in Europe is the same religious denomination as the church in the United States.

The religious organization, which is sponsoring the alien, must be considered non-profit and tax-exempt under U.S. tax law. Aside from that, the religious organization must show that it has enough income to pay the alien a living wage.

There is no labor certification requirement for religious workers. That means that the religious organization does not have to advertise the job or show that there is a shortage of U.S. workers to do the religious work.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This expresses two ideas. The first is that the government or the state is not to support a particular religion or church, or any religion. The second is that people are free to believe according to their conscience. This right aims to prevent the government from forcing people either to attend religious services of one religion or not to attend religious services of another religion. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, and one of the architects of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, declared: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”

The founders believed that the First Amendment would serve two goals. First, it would prevent civil strife between members of different religions or sects, and the breakdown of society. Second, preventing the government from becoming involved in religion would prevent the corruption of religion. Once the government is involved in religion, religion is used to serve political leaders and state institutions, and is thereby corrupted. The only true religion, they believed, comes from inside a person, from inner reflection, and cannot be coerced by others or by the State.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that requiring students in public school to recite any kind of prayer in school violates the Establishment Clause. In a 1962 case, Engel v. Vitale, New York State had prepared a “non-denominational prayer” to be used in the public schools. The Supreme Court found this practice to be unconstitutional.

The practice was clearly a “religious activity”, and the Court found that it is not the government’s business to compose official prayers. The Court declared that “when the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain”. Governmentally established religion and religious persecution go hand in hand, reasoned the Court.

While people have the right to observe and practice their religion, they do not have the right to violate general laws which seek to prevent criminal activity. For example, American Indians who use the drug peyote as part of their religion were prohibited from using this drug by a law preventing use of illegal drugs. This did not violate their right to practice their religion, since it was a general law that sought to proscribe criminal activity.

In a New York case, decided by the Federal Court of Appeals in March, 1997, an Egyptian man who kidnapped his children and took them from New York to Egypt was found guilty of the crime of international parental kidnapping. The court rejected his argument that the federal law forbidding parental kidnapping violated his right to exercise his religion, since his motive in returning his children to Egypt was to provide them with a Muslim education. The Court held that the federal law had a neutral purpose, to prevent kidnapping, and was generally applied to everyone, and so did not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.