Naturalization Oath and Religion

Preface Note

The issue below has been resolved. USCIS acted very quickly and efficiently and handled it very well. Before my oath ceremony, on the ceremony grounds, they paged me and informed me that I was of course allowed to take the modified oath. It is good to see them work so well!

For naturalization applicants: I would encourage you to make a conscious decision about this clause of the oath. If you want to take it with the religious term, by all means do so. If you do not want to use this phrase, ask to have it removed! It is not mentioned in any of the instructions, but USCIS policy, as well as the US Constitution, does allow you to remove it just for the asking - even though you might have to fight for it a little as I did.

Remember, as a prospective US Citizen, it is your First Amendment!

In addition, I want to thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State for their very generous help! This is an awesome organization, incidentally is led by an ordained minister, that works to keep government out of churches, and churches out of the government.

The issue

In order to become a US citizen, one has to meet several criteria, and finally take an oath on the US constitution.

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.

There are several clauses in this oath that some people may find objectionable on religious grounds, such as the requirement to bear arms. For this reason, USCIS regulations allow taking a modified oath for religious reasons. In most cases, a letter from a Congregation or similar evidence is required. Note that you cannot request a change to the oath for reasons that are not protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Generally, you must take the oath exactly as specified by regulations.

However, the last four words of the oath are strictly religious in nature. Some people also refuse to take any oath for religious reasons, and then are allowed to substitute "solemnly affirm" for "on oath". This runs into issues surrounding the First Amendment.

On a personal note, I believe that including the words "so help me God" in the standard oath is Constitutionally problematic despite the option to remove it. I believe that the only Constitutionally proper way to handle this would be to provide the oath without the religious invocation, and optionally allow naturalization candidates to add their own religious affirmation (which could be "So Help Me God" but also "So Help Me Allah" or other religious invocations).

History of the matter

I became eligible for US citizenship in May of 2005, and filed form N-400, Application for Naturalization. On this form, I indicated that I requested a modified oath. The only modification requested was removal of the clause "so help me God" since I believe that this violates the commandment "Thou shalt not invoke my name in vain" as well as the separation between church and state.

A few days ago (as of September 2005), I had my citizenship interview. The interviewing officer told me that he could not approve my request for the modified oath. I would have to either take the full oath, or if it was important enough for me, I could opt not to become a US citizen - which is it going to be? Given the circumstances, I decided to acquiesce for the time being. The remaining part of the interview went without a problem. After the interview, I immediately contacted Americans for Separation of Church and State, who was willing to contact USCIS on my behalf and get this resolved. Apparently, they had already successfully intervened in a nearly identical case in 1994, and USCIS had promised to clarify internally that taking a secular oath should be approved just for the asking. Here is the letter AU wrote on my behalf (posted by permission, redacted for some private information).

Additional information