March 4th, 2013
04:06 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Washington (CNN) – An atheist group that misquoted former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a billboard in Texas is apologizing to the Republican and correcting the mistake. But it continues to defend the “intent and context” of the effort.
CNN first reported on Sunday that American Atheists, a group known for its in-your-face tactics, was sponsoring a billboard calling out Palin for something she said while on Fox News.
“We should create law based on the God of the Bible,” the billboard reads.
The only problem: That isn’t what Palin said.
In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly, Palin addressed the growth in American secularism by saying of America's founding fathers “we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments,” not “should.”
Dave Muscato, the group’s public relations director, said in a release that because American Atheists holds itself “to the highest standards of accuracy,” it will “move the quotation marks at our expense, so they do not include the word ‘should.’”
Both Muscato and David Silverman, the group’s president, however, stand by the “intent and context” of the billboard.
“While I admit that the word 'should' should technically not be inside the quote, the meaning was correct,” Silverman said in a statement to CNN.
Silverman initially defended the misquotation, tweeting that “Sarah Palin was NOT Misquoted” and directing readers to a headline from a Huffington Post story. The story headline, however, was also incorrect and did not put quotes around should.
Silverman was critiqued for that double down. Hemant Mehta, an influential atheist blogger at Patheos, wrote that a mistake like this “sheds doubt on the whole idea that atheists are the ones who are being honest with you.”
Although Silverman said in an e-mail to CNN that he believes “Ms. Palin would stand by what we have quoted her as saying,” he said “all future quotes will be exactly as spoken.”
A spokeswoman for Palin failed to respond to CNN’s request for a comment and has not contacted American Atheists about the mistake.
Although Palin’s billboard is getting the most attention, it was one of seven ads going up around the Dallas and Austin, Texas, area. Also featured were: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and Benedict XVI, now the pope emeritus.
Santorum is condemned for when he told an Iowa crowd last November that, “our civil laws have to comport with a higher law: God's law,” while Gingrich is criticized for a remark he made at a CNN debate on October 18, 2011, in Las Vegas. “How can I trust you with power if you don't pray,” Gingrich posited.
Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for Santorum, thanked American Atheists for the publicity.
“At a time when many are trying to remove God from the public square, the senator is appreciative of someone helping him very publicly express his strong belief that we are one nation under God,” Davis wrote in an e-mail to CNN.
The billboards cost the group $25,000 and will be up for the rest of the month.
American Atheists is used to controversy around their billboards.
Last March, the group targeted Muslims and Jews with billboards that called God a "myth" in both Arabic and Hebrew and the same group posted a billboard around the holiday season in 2010 that read, “You KNOW it's a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON.”
Both these billboard campaigns generated resistance and praise from the communities around them.
Silverman, who has been criticized for this brand of atheism, has long defended the tactic, saying confrontation is meant to “grow the cause and benefit the country.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.