By law, before a person gains U.S. citizenship, he or she must take the Oath of Allegiance in a public ceremony. The law, which is part of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, states that in taking the oath, prospective citizens must:
- Declare support for the Constitution; renounce allegiances to foreign powers.
- Defend the Constitution against all enemies.
- “Bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution.
- Bear arms or conduct noncombatant service in the Armed Forces or perform work of “national importance under civilian direction” if required to do so.
The oath that immigrants take today basically takes language from the law. It reads:
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
If some of the language seems old fashioned — you may not have used the words “abjure” or “potentate” a lot lately — that is because this wording comes from the Naturalization Act of 1795, which is a product of the 3rd U.S. Congress.
When it comes to promising to bear arms, the law offers options to modify the oath for those who have religious or conscientious objections.
A person who, “by reason of religious training and belief,” objects to bearing arms in the Armed Forces may skip that part of the oath, but must promise to perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces and work of “national importance under civilian direction.”
A person who, “by reason of religious training and belief,” objects to any type of service in the Armed Forces must promise only to “perform work of national importance under civilian direction.”
T0 be excepted from promising to bear arms or perform noncombatant service, an applicant must request an oath modification and demonstrate to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that he or she qualifies for such exemption.
On July 21, USCIS issued a policy alert to say that it had updated its policy manual with guidance for adjudicators for determining whether an applicant qualifies for an oath modification.
According to the guidance, the applicant must have a deeply held objection to bearing arms or serving in the Armed Forces. For example, the objection cannot be based on opposition to a specific war or on public policy objections.
The guidance clarifies that, while the objection may be based on religious principles, it is not necessary for the applicant to belong to a church or a religion. The applicant may instead demonstrate he or she has a “sincere and meaningful belief that has a place in the applicant’s life that is equivalent to that of a religious belief.”
The applicant may support his or her claim with attestations from religious organizations or other witnesses, but also may support the objection with oral or written testimony. The guidance includes a list of the kinds of questions an officer may ask about the applicant’s beliefs to determine eligibility for modification of the oath, but the officer “must not question the validity of what an applicant believes.”
If the officer is satisfied that the applicant qualifies for an oath modification, the applicant will be able to recite an Oath of Allegiance that omits mention of bearing arms in the Armed Forces and, depending on the request, the performance of noncombatant services in the Armed Forces.