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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Mandatory Public Service

Q: Is Congress creating a mandatory public service system? Are participants not allowed to go to church?

A: The national service bill does not mandate that youth must participate nor does it forbid anyone who does participate from going to church.


Really needing an article from you guys on this new proposed legislation H.R. 1388 (GIVE Act). I have been getting all kinds of e-mails from people claiming that bill calls for mandatory service and in violation of our 13th amendment , and that I should call my congressman and tell them that this bill is modern day slavery. I have also received e-mails saying that service would still be voluntary and that the bill is just expanding current volunteer opportunities. I have read portions of the bill that I could find and am unable to tell exactly what the bill is calling for (mandatory vs. volunteer service?). There is a lot of confusion out there right now regarding this very important legislation and was hoping you guys could shed some light.


We have received several inquiries about this bill, which has passed both the House and Senate with significant bipartisan support. Some e-mails and conservative Web sites say it requires the government to draw up plans for a “mandatory service requirement for all able young people.” Others say the bill forbids participants from attending church.

These claims are false. Neither the House-passed bill nor the Senate-passed version says these things.

H.R. 1388 was introduced in the House on March 9. It passed the House a week later by a vote of 321 – 105, with nearly all Democrats and 70 Republicans supporting it. It passed the Senate on March 26, 79 – 19. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, a cosponsor of the Senate legislation, called it "probably the most bipartisan bill we will see on the Senate floor this year." For the record, 22 Republicans voted yes, and 19 – the only senators who opposed the bill – voted no.

House Republicans who approved of the bill said in the House committee report: "[W]e applaud the inclusion of reforms that Committee Republicans have long championed to ensure that recipients of taxpayer funds are held accountable for results. We are pleased to join with the Majority in supporting bipartisan efforts to strengthen the national service laws and improve service delivery throughout the country."

Called the GIVE Act ("Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act") in the House and the "Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act" in the Senate, the legislation reauthorizes and expands established national service programs including VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) and the National Civilian Community Corps, both of which are AmeriCorps programs. The House bill sets a goal of having 250,000 yearly participants in such programs by 2014; the Senate bill says there should be that many national service positions by 2017. About 75,000 adults participate in AmeriCorps each year now; there are 4 million people total in various national community service programs, according to AmeriCorps.

The act also aims to increase volunteer and public service opportunities, including opportunities for retirees and the Baby Boom generation, and to "support institutions of higher education that engage students in community service activities." It calls for giving students who complete an approved full-time national service job an "educational award having a value equal to the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant." AmeriCorps says this would increase the amount its members receive upon completion of service from $4,725 to $5,350, which they can use to pay for school or pay back student loans.

Forced Public Service

Some Internet postings claim the bill says the government must come up with plans for a “mandatory service requirement for all able young people,” but that phrase is nowhere to be found in either the House-passed bill or the Senate version.

The bill as introduced in the House, however, did call for examining whether this would be a good idea. It called for a congressional commission to "address and analyze" several topics, including "issues that deter volunteerism" and how they can be overcome, how expanding international public service might affect diplomacy and foreign relations, and "[w]hether a workable, fair, and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed, and how such a requirement could be implemented in a manner that would strengthen the social fabric of the Nation." The commission would also investigate "[t]he need for a public service academy, a 4-year institution that offers a federally funded undergraduate education with a focus on training future public sector leaders."

All of that language is now gone. To be clear, the original bill didn’t call for a mandatory public service program, but called for the exploration of whether one could be established. But the entire section on creating a "Congressional Commission on Civic Service" was stripped from the bill.

It is part of a separate piece of legislation, introduced on March 11 (two days after H.R. 1388 was introduced) by Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott. H.R. 1444 was referred to a House committee. No other action has been taken on the bill. McDermott introduced a similar bill in 2007 and it died, never making it out of a subcommittee.

Furthermore, Hatch, a Republican cosponsor of the Senate’s national service bill, said on the floor of the Senate that nothing in the legislation called for mandatory service:

Hatch, March 23: Consistent with our All-Volunteer Army and volunteer opportunities and individuals’ choice in communities, nothing in this legislation is mandatory. This bill simply provides more Americans more choices and opportunities to give back to their neighborhoods and their country all through the means which they freely choose.

The only mention of anything being mandatory in either of the bills passed by the House or Senate is in the definition for "youth engagement zone program." Such a program is eligible for funding under the bill, and it is defined in the House bill as one that provides school-based or community-based "service learning opportunities" in which "(A) not less than 90 percent of the students participate in service-learning activities as part of the program; or (B) service-learning is a mandatory part of the curriculum in all of the secondary schools served by the local educational agency." That’s not a call for making public service mandatory, but rather an explanation of one type of program that can get money under the bill. The Senate bill does not include the word "mandatory," saying instead that "service-learning is a part of the curriculum."

Thou Shalt Not Attend Church

Even though it would be an incredibly draconian law – and a clear violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, upon which this country was founded – Internet postings still claim that under this bill "church attendance [is] forbidden."

The postings, which repeat commentary by the Jonas Clark Ministries, point to section 125, which lists "prohibited activities and ineligible organizations." The section says that those working in national service positions can’t engage in partisan politics, union activities or religious instruction. And the language mirrors what AmeriCorps and Senior Corps tell their members about what they can’t do while working for those programs.

Specifically, the bill says those in national service positions can’t: attempt to "influence legislation"; organize "protests, petitions, boycotts or strikes"; promote "union organizing; engage in "partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office"; and engage in "religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization." That’s the House’s language, and the wording in the Senate version is nearly identical. The Senate is perhaps more clear in saying "[a]n approved national service position under this subtitle may not be used for" all of these activities. In other words, public service activities can’t include anything overtly religious or political. And this is nothing new.

The current AmeriCorps handbook tells volunteers much the same thing:

AmeriCorps handbook: There are certain activities, including lobbying, political, or advocacy activities, that you may not perform as an AmeriCorps member. Generally, you may not engage in any conduct that would associate the national service program or the Corporation for National and Community Service with any prohibited activity.

As an AmeriCorps member, you may not:

  • engage in any effort to influence legislation, including state or local ballot initiatives or lobbying for your AmeriCorps program; for example, you may not organize a letter-writing campaign to Congress;

  • engage in partisan political activities or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office;

  • organize or take part in political demonstrations or rallies;

  • organize or participate in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes; …

  • engage in religious instruction; conduct worship services; provide instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship; construct or operate facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship; maintain facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship; or engage in any form of religious proselytization; or

  • provide a direct benefit to a for-profit entity, a labor union, a partisan political organization, or, in general, an organization engaged in the religious activities described in the preceding bullet.

Senior Corps’ RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) Operations Handbook includes similar language. It prohibits members from using their positions to engage in partisan political activities and stipulates that "volunteers and project staff funded by the Corporation [for National and Community Service] may not give religious instruction, conduct worship services, or engage in any form of proselytization as part of their duties." Organizations that offer religious instruction can continue to do so, but not with government funds. "If an organization conducts such activities, the activities must be offered separately, in time or location, from the programs or services funded under RSVP," the handbook says.

The national service legislation now goes to a Senate-House conference committee to agree upon the language of the final bill.

Update, March 31: The House has approved the Senate version of the bill, and it now will go to President Obama for his signature.

Update, April 6: AmeriCorps spokesman Sandy Scott offered us further clarification on the political and religious restrictions in its handbook and the legislation: "Both House- and Senate-passed bills codify long-standing regulatory restrictions on engaging in certain activities while "on-duty" as an AmeriCorps member. They do not cover what individuals do on their own time at their own initiative," Scott wrote in an e-mail to FactCheck.org.

Update, April 21: President Obama signed the national service bill today. In his remarks, he asked Americans "to make an enduring commitment to serving your community and your country in whatever way you can." The White House launched the site Serve.gov, where visitors can search for volunteer opportunities – if they want. "I’m not going to tell you what your role should be; that’s for you to discover. But I’m asking you to stand up and play your part," Obama said. "And if you do, I promise you – your life will be richer, our country will be stronger, and someday, years from now, you may remember it as the moment when your own story and the American story converged, when they came together, and we met the challenges of our new century."

– Lori Robertson


111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 1388, as passed by the House.

111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 1388, as introduced in the House.

111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 1388, as passed by the Senate.

AmeriCorps. “Senate Passes Historic Bipartisan Expansion of National Service,” press release, 26 March 2009.

111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 1388 House Report 111-037.

111th Congress, 1st session. H.R. 1444.

111th Congress, 1st session. Congressional Record. S3596, 23 March 2009.

AmeriCorps. “A Guide for AmeriCorps Members.”

Corporation for National & Community Service. “RSVP: Lead with Experience” Operations Handbook, June 2008.