A local charity is refusing to certify
that it does not use United Way funds to support terrorism, saying the request smacks of McCarthyism.
Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham, who since 1968 have operated Viva House soup kitchen and food pantry on the city’s west side, say they were surprised to receive a letter in December from the United Way of Central Maryland asking them to sign and return an “Anti-Terrorism Compliance Measures” form or risk losing money that was pledged to them.
“It’s tantamount to signing a loyalty oath,” Walsh says.
For many years Viva House has gotten small amounts through United Way, the couple says. The most recent check, for $625, came in June. But never before has the United Way sent any correspondence like it did on Dec. 6.
Gail James, United Way of Central Maryland’s director of donor services, wrote that “in the spirit of compliance with the USA PATRIOT Act, and in accordance with membership standards for United Way of America, we have a compliance program designed to prevent the flow of funds to terrorists and/or terrorist organizations.”
The letter asked Walsh and Bickham to fill out the “Anti-Terrorism Compliance Measures” form on the back of the letter and return it by Dec. 31. The form has only one statement, in which the signatory pledges that his or her organization will use all United Way donations “in compliance with all applicable anti-terrorist financing and asset control laws, statutes and executive orders.”
Chuck Tildon, a spokesman for United Way of Central Maryland, says Viva House should have been getting and returning the form annually since about 2004. “We may have had an issue before, administratively, with getting the form out to them,” he says.
Bickham and Walsh drafted a letter in reply declining to fill out the form. “We continue to ‘do the works of mercy and resist the works of war,’” the couple wrote in a Jan. 5 letter addressed to the United Way’s James, quoting from Viva House’s mission statement. “Loyalty oaths don’t bring about unity or good health. Instead, they break us apart as a people.” The letter urges the United Way to abandon its USA PATRIOT Act compliance effort.
“We think it’s important for people to know they’ve been handing this out,” Walsh says.
Viva House is part of the Catholic Worker movement, co-founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and dedicated to peace, justice, and social equality. Bickham and Walsh, who provide meals to hundreds of people each week with the help of volunteers, have deep roots in the 1960s anti-war movement. (Disclosure: Various
staff members have volunteered at Viva House in years past; some still contribute to its holiday food drive.)
“To do what we did to Iraq and Afghanistan was unconscionable,” Walsh says, sitting at the Viva House dining room table before a recent meal. Bickham shows off the orange jumpsuit she wears in anti-war and anti-torture protests.
Walsh says the anti-terror form is “redundant,” since the federal government already gets detailed information about Viva House—where its money comes from and how it is spent—via the tax forms all charities must file.
Unlike some larger charities, Viva House is in a special category at the United Way called “designated.” It’s essentially like a write-in candidate, Bickham says, where potential donors can direct their United Way gifts to Viva House, but Viva House won’t receive money from other United Way donors.
Tildon says the form originated with United Way Worldwide, the umbrella charity that owns the United Way brand and advises its 1,400 member United Ways.
Del Galloway, a spokesman for United Way Worldwide, which is based in Virginia, says the organization began using the anti-terror form in 2004, as required by provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act. He says he has never heard of any charity refusing to sign the form, “but our counsel—our advice—would be that if a grantee refuses to sign, to not pay the grant and return the money to the donor if it was a designation.”
Tildon says United Way of Central Maryland has not taken a position on the matter. “Frankly this is the first time this has come up,” he says. “So we’re going to meet with them as a management team” in hopes of resolving the issue.