(RNS) An organization of student nonbelievers is likely to receive $69,000 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the largest grant from an institute of higher learning ever awarded to a nontheistic, student-led organization.
The grant's size marks a milestone for UW's Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics -- AHA for short -- placing it in an elite group of large, student-run organizations eligible for UW funds, and making it the most well-funded atheist student group in the nation.
"This is unquestionably the most money an SSA group has ever received," said Jesse Galef, director of communications for Secular Student Alliance, an organization of 387 campus-based groups of nontheists, including AHA. "Over half our groups operate on $250 or less."
The grant has passed two approval stages and is awaiting approval from the university's student council, chancellor and regents. Rejection at this point is rare, said David Gardner, a spokesman for the university's student government association.
The money comes from a pot of $39 million garnered from student fees -- almost $1,400 per full-time student each year -- and distributed to fewer than two dozen large campus organizations. Other groups are eligible for money from a different fund.
But the money has strings. It must be used to provide services and programs UW does not. And those programs and services must be available year-round to all students -- not just ones who don't believe in God.
That's fine with Chris Calvey, president of AHA, which has about 1,500 names on its email list and attracts about 40 people to its meetings. He said much of the money will be used to hire eight staffers for a "secular support group," where students who do not believe in God or adhere to any religion could meet with like-minded students in a "safe" environment. A second planned program, a "faith questioning service," would allow students questioning religion to meet one-on-one with peers for discussion.
"We are not in the business of trying to go out and convert people to atheism," Calvey, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, said. "It is more about helping people find their own religious identities. If they grow stronger in their faith than they were before they talked to us, we think that's good too."
So far, AHA's award has met with no opposition -- university rules require overseers of the money to consider only the services the groups hope to provide.
"At no point in this process would anyone be able to say,'I don't like this group's viewpoint, so I don't want to fund them,'" Gardner said. "We take our neutrality very seriously."
Jake Heyka, president of Badger Catholic, a group that also receives university money, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We absolutely respect the free will God granted us for individuals and groups to have an ideology that doesn't match our own."
When Calvey, 26, joined AHA in 2009, it had no budget. The following year, it applied for and received about $200 from the university, he said.
Each year, the group has applied for more funds for events, trips and educational programs. Last year's budget -- $15,000 -- went, in part, to co-sponsor a "Freethought Festival" with local, off-campus nontheistic groups that attracted more than 700 people. Part of the current grant would make AHA the sole sponsor of that annual event.
Galef, of SSA, called the grant a "game changer" for nontheistic students nationwide.
"It expands our sense of what's possible and shows us that the country is starting to give secular student alliances the same legitimacy religious groups have," he said.