Many people along the Wasatch Front are familiar with how difficult it can be to obtain a visa to perform missionary service in another country. Sometimes, the wait for approval can drag on for months, requiring the missionary to serve somewhere in the United States for a time.
Some countries, such as Brazil, require applicants to submit copies of an ordination certificate or a diploma and transcript from a course of theological study, proving they are trained.
Few Americans, however, consider what it takes for a foreigner to obtain a necessary visa to serve as a missionary in the United States. This nation has rules, as well, and sometimes the wait for approval can take from nine months to nearly a year.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is sponsoring a bill that would speed that process, reducing the wait time to weeks instead. It’s a good idea, and it might lead to reciprocal moves by other nations who accept missionaries of U.S. origin.
Foreign missionaries coming to the United States must obtain an R-1 Temporary Nonimmigrant Religious Worker visa. They must be affiliated with a religious organization that has a nonprofit status in this country or with an organization affiliated with a tax-exempt religious organization. The applicant must have been a member of the denomination for at least two years.
Hatch’s bill would allow eligible religious organizations to participate in a streamlined petition procedure that makes the review process faster.
In this age of heightened concerns about undocumented immigrants, the overstaying of visas and fears that terrorists will take advantage of weaknesses in immigration laws to obtain easy entry, a bill such as this may raise concerns. Certainly, the nation should be attuned to the possibility that someone might enter the nation under false pretenses.
However, the requirement that applicants have the approval and endorsement of an established religious organization satisfies this worry. Churches, concerned about their own reputations and relations with the government, have a strong incentive to vet the missionaries they send here. To date, this has not posed a problem.
The rules and procedures nations put in place for accepting religious workers are evidence of their level of respect for religious liberty. A nation may profess to allow the freedom to worship, but if it puts in place rules that make it difficult for adherents to enter the country and proselytize, those claims are suspect.
Hatch’s bill would make it clear to the world that the United States values its foundational claim to religious freedom, as enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. It would re-emphasize the notion that Americans have nothing to fear from a free exchange of religious ideas and philosophies.
It also would stand as an invitation to other nations to streamline their visa processes in return, thus strengthening religious liberties worldwide.