It’s critical that religious organizations and individuals who file for a religious worker green card understand the relevant terms. For example, there is a large difference between religious occupation and a religious vocation. Just that one different word – occupation versus vocation – can open up a host of requirements and evidentiary issues. Some of these key definitions, according to the USCIS, (and as defined in the Immigration and Naturalization Act, are:

Bona Fide Nonprofit Religious Organization in the United States

This term means a religious organization that is tax-exempt according to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code of 1986, subsequent changes, or prior equivalent sections of the Internal Revenue Code. The entity must have a valid IRS determination letter that is current and confirms the tax-exempt status. The USCIS requires the determination letter. The USCIC doesn’t permit the organization to supply alternative documentation.

The determination can be an individual 501(c)(3) determination letter or an IRS letter for a group if the religious organization is covered under a group ruling.

Bona Fide Organization That Is Affiliated with the Religious Denomination

This term applies to an organization that is “closely associated with a religious denomination.” The affiliated organization must be tax-exempt – according to section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) of 1986 and subsequent/related amendments and equivalent sections of prior IRC enactments. The organization “must have a currently valid determination letter from the IRS confirming the tax exemption.” Additional documentation may be required.

Religious Denomination

This term means “a religious group or community of believers that is governed or administered under a common type of ecclesiastical government” – and one of the following conditions applies:

  • “A recognized common creed or statement of faith shared among the denomination’s members
  • A common form of worship
  • A common formal code of doctrine and discipline
  • Common religious services and ceremonies
  • Common established places of religious worship, religious congregations
  • Comparable evidence of a bona fide religious denomination”

The religious organization may meet the religious denomination definition by providing a description of its internal governing structure – If there is no hierarchical ecclesiastical government.

Denominational Membership

This term means “membership during at least the two-year period immediately preceding the filing date of the petition, in the same type of religious denomination as the United States religious organization where the beneficiary will work.” This definition is recent.


Ministers are also called priests, rabbis, imam, and other words depending on the religion. Minister means a person who, “according to the denomination’s standards:”

  • “Is fully authorized by a religious denomination, and fully-trained according to the denomination’s standards, to conduct religious worship and perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy of that denomination”
  • Isn’t a layperson or preacher who doesn’t have the authority to perform duties normally performed by clergy.
  • “Performs activities with a rational relationship to the religious calling of the minister”
  • Works only as a minister in the US. This can include administrative tasks that are part of the minister’s duties.

Religious Occupation

This term means an occupation that meets all of the following obligations – as part of the religious denomination’s standards:

The duties:

  • “Must primarily relate to a traditional religious function and be recognized as a religious occupation within the denomination”
  • “Must be primarily related to, and must clearly involve, inculcating or carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination”

The duties shouldn’t include work which is mainly administrative or supportive – such as a janitor, maintenance worker, clerical job, fund-raiser, persons “solely involved in the solicitation of donations” or similar jobs. Some administrative work may be acceptable if it’s incident to a religious occupation.

While religious workers can pursue study or training incidental to their job – study or training does not directly qualify the work as a religious occupation.

Religious Vocation

This term requires a “formal lifetime commitment, through vows, investitures, ceremonies, or similar indicia, to a religious way of life.” “The religious denomination must have a class of individuals whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from the secular members of the religion.” Monks, Nuns, and religious brothers and sisters are common examples.

Religious Worker

This term means “an individual engaged in and, according to the denomination’s standards, is qualified for a religious occupation or vocation, whether or not in a professional capacity, or as a minister.” This is a new definition.

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