MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- An atheist group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could receive almost $70,000 in student fees for programming costs, an apparent first for the college and student atheist groups nationwide.
The Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics said its mission is to promote the discussion of faith and religion on campus. AHA provides support for students struggling with doubts about their faiths and offers a safe place where they can discuss religious issues freely, according to the group's blog.
"Religious groups have been receiving this type of funding for years," AHA President Chris Calvey told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "It's about time that secular students got the support we deserve."
The university's Student Services Finance Committee allocates student group budgets out of the $39 million in student fees annually. Recently the committee unanimously approved about $67,400 for AHA for the 2013-14 academic year. While the allocation still requires the approval of the student council, chancellor and board of regents, David Gardner, a spokesman for the Associated Students of Madison, said committee recommendations are rarely if ever overturned.
Other campus groups that have received funding include those offer tutoring, sex education or legal information, and others that promote multicultural sensitivity or Catholicism.
AHA's award may be the largest ever awarded to an atheist campus group in the nation, according to the Secular Student Alliance of Columbus, Ohio.
"It's pretty common for groups to have budgets of a few hundred dollars," said Alliance spokesman Jesse Galef, whose organization has 383 affiliates around the country. "This is something on a different magnitude entirely."
University procedures prohibit allowing value judgments to influence whether groups will receive funding. The only criteria are whether the groups provide direct services to students and whether they're big enough to warrant an annual budget, Gardner said.
The UW-Madison group's email list has grown from about 100 to 1,500 over the last three years. The growth reflects the national emergence of people who say they don't identify with any religious affiliation, and can range from atheists and agnostics to those who say they're spiritual but don't believe in organized religion.
The idea of funding a religious-based group has been controversial in the past. In 2007, the student-run Badger Catholic sued after the university rejected $35,000 of a $253,000 allocation because it had been earmarked for worship activities. The university lost the suit and paid $500,000 in legal fees.
Badger Catholic President Jake Heyka, whose group was granted $116,000 for the current academic year, said he doesn't object to AHA's allocation.
"We absolutely respect the free will God granted us for individuals and groups to have an ideology that doesn't match our own," he said.