Signs of the Times

Judge Rejects Atheist Challenge to Inaugural Prayer

Religion News Service reports that a U.S. District judge on Thursday (Jan. 15) denied a California atheist’s request to halt references to God at President-elect Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 20. “I think it’s highly questionable that I have such authority,” said Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after a two-hour hearing Thursday afternoon (Jan. 15). Walton did not dismiss the case, but denied Michael Newdow’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying the “ceremonial speech” at the presidential inauguration is “in substance” no different from legislative prayers that the Supreme Court has permitted. Newdow, an emergency room physician, made his third attempt to have religious references at presidential inaugurations declared unconstitutional.

Pastor Rick Warren’s Invocation uses Jewish, Christian Mix

Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren opened Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony Tuesday by touching on the two greatest prayers in Judaism and Christianity and asking God to grace the nation with clarity, responsibility and civility, “even when we differ.” Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has been excoriated for weeks by gay rights activists outraged that a leading opponent of gay marriage had been offered a national podium by Obama. Warren’s invocation began with a fundamental Jewish prayer that declares the “Lord is one.” He also alluded to a description of God as the “compassionate and merciful” one that opens almost every chapter of the Quran. Warren concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. Jim Naughton of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who supports gay clergy, called Warren’s speech “as inclusive as his conscience would allow him to be.” (see attached for the full text of Warren’s prayer).

Civil rights icon Joseph Lowery, who supports gay marriage,gave the benediction. Lowery’s benediction began: “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears” from Lift Every Voice and Sing, a poem by James Weldon Johnson. He asked God to help Americans make “choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.” Obama smiled as Lowery asked God to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” Lowery concluded, “Let all who do justice and love mercy say amen.”

On a morning of countless firsts in U.S. history, add this: Barack Obama’s inaugural speech is the first time a president has ever explicitly acknowledged not only “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” but non-believers as well.

Ø JJ Commentary: Loving everybody, including our enemies, is the hallmark of Christianity. However, that does not mean we also love and tolerate violations of God’s absolute laws.

Evangelicals, Progressives Announce Common Agenda

Religion News Service reports that an evangelical-progressive coalition has developed an agenda aimed at moving beyond past divisions on hot-button social issues to seek policy changes on abortion, torture and other issues. After two years of discussion, they have concluded that their “Come Let Us Reason Together” agenda will include reducing abortion, protecting employment rights of gays and lesbians, renouncing torture and immigration reform. “Though I focus on the ideal for marriage as between one man and one woman, … I also believe that each American citizen has the right to earn a living without discrimination,” said Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter. Evangelical leaders who do not condone gay marriage said they could nonetheless support greater workplace protections for gays and lesbians, provided there is an exemption for faith-based employers.

Ø JJ Commentary: Attempts to forge “common agendas” between disparate ideologies lead to compromises that undermine the absolute authority of God’s laws

Inauguration Emotions Rung High in USA

USA TODAY Across the country, people gathered in schools, arenas, bars, workplaces and homes to witness the historic day. Emotions spilled over as they wept, cheered and prayed. In many parts of the USA far from the White House, people were ecstatic and looking forward to Obama’s promise of change. In public housing projects, the auto towns of the Midwest, the Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods of the Gulf Coast and in schools, where for a day students watched history instead of reading about it, the nation celebrated. At the inauguration ceremony, a serene-looking Obama greeted well-wishers on the podium as a thunderous roar went up from what appeared to be more than 1 million flag-waving onlookers who jammed the National Mall all the way to the Washington Monument, about a mile away. People were stacked 12 deep on sidewalks along the parade route, holding children on their shoulders, snapping pictures and waving Obama posters. The day had the feeling of a giant state fair. There were vendors hawking Obama sweatshirts, hats and pins. Buildings were decked out in red, white and blue.

Ø JJ Commentary: Obama-mania’s positive vibes are uplifting, especially for multicultural citizens. Today, however, reality begins to set in. Traditionally, a 100-day “honeymoon” period exempts new Presidents from harsh criticism. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the euphoria to dissipate as his policies lead us deeper and deeper into socialism – a path unfortunately greased by our outgoing President.

Change of Power Celebrated Across Globe

USA TODAY Across the world, millions of people embraced the new president as one of their own Tuesday because of his multicultural heritage and promises of change. There was also apprehension as people wondered how Obama would deal with the slumping world economy, Iraq and conflicts such as the one in Israel and Gaza. The inauguration also marked a turnover of the U.S. diplomatic corps, as dozens of Bush administration ambassadors left their offices for the last time. “That magic moment of democratic transition means change for us all,” Antonio Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said in a farewell letter on Tuesday.

Muslims’ Hopes for Obama Dampened by Gaza

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An Arabic middle name and a compelling biography will go only so far. If President-elect Barack Hussein Obama really wants to improve America’s standing in the Muslim world, he’ll need to do more to win over skeptics. Many Muslims doubt that Obama will rethink the United States’ support for Israel. Israel’s three-week war against Palestinian militants in Gaza stopped Sunday with a cease-fire, but the rage it generated among many Muslims threatens to overshadow any optimism they feel about Obama’s inauguration. A harder line against Israel “is the immediate demand of the Muslim people.” Last month, Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he hoped to “reboot” U.S.-Muslim relations. Tensions have risen over the Bush administration’s invasions of Muslim countries Afghanistan and Iraq, by its hard line toward Iran and by its support for Israel. As part of his outreach to Muslims, Obama plans a major speech in an unspecified Islamic capital. And he has pledged to begin pulling troops from Iraq.

Chinese Websites Censor Parts of Obama Speech

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese translations of President Obama’s inauguration speech posted Wednesday on popular online portals were missing his references to communism and dissent. The comments by the newly installed U.S. president veered into potentially sensitive territory for China’s ruling Communist Party, which maintains a tight grip over the Internet and the entirely state-run media. At one point, Obama said earlier generations “faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” He later addressed “those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent — know that you are on the wrong side of history.”

Israeli Military: All Soldiers Withdrawn from Gaza

JERUSALEM (AP) — The last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip before dawn Wednesday, the military said, as Israel dispatched its foreign minister to Europe in a bid to rally international support for an end to arms smuggling into the Hamas-ruled territory. The timing of the pullout reflected Israeli hopes to defuse the crisis in Gaza before President Barack Obama entered the White House. The military said troops remain massed on the Israeli side of the border and are poised to take action if militants violate a fragile three-day cease-fire. The troops’ exit marked the end of an Israeli offensive that ravaged Gaza and left some 1,300 Palestinians dead, according to Gaza health officials. The officials say at least half of the dead are civilians. The Israeli military says 500 Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting. Gaza’s militant groups claim only some 150 of the dead were armed fighters. Israel launched the offensive to permanently halt years of militant rocket fire on growing numbers of Israelis and to halt the smuggling of arms that turned Hamas into a potent threat to much of southern Israel.

Hamas Deems Gaza Fighting a Victory

JERUSALEM (AP) — The U.N. chief toured Gaza on Tuesday to inspect the devastation wrought by Israel’s onslaught — including the smoldering U.N. headquarters — as the territory’s militant Hamas rulers, triumphant at having survived, held victory rallies amid the ruins. Thousands of Hamas supporters thronged a square outside the remains of the parliament building in Gaza City, which was heavily damaged in an Israeli airstrike at the outset of the war. Two men hoisted a sign in carefully scripted Hebrew reading, “The resistance will be victorious, Israel has been defeated.” Israel and Hamas both ceased fire on Sunday, after an offensive that claimed the lives of some 1,300 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis. The last of Israel’s ground troops were expected to pull out of Gaza on Tuesday if the quiet holds, defense officials said.

Plans to Close Gitmo Anger 9/11 Victims’ Families

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — Plans to close Guantanamo are not sitting well with the Sept. 11 victims’ relatives who sat stunned while two alleged terrorists declared they were proud of their role in the plot. The U.S. military brought relatives of three Sept. 11 victims to Guantanamo to observe pretrial hearings in the case of five men charged in the plot who could get the death penalty if convicted. It is a potentially momentous time for the military detention center. Military judges will consider Wednesday whether to halt the Guantanamo war crimes trials after President Barack Obama ordered prosecutors to request a 120-day suspension during a review of the system used to try suspected terrorists. The motions, filed just hours after Obama’s inauguration, will be heard in the cases of five men charged in the Sept. 11 attacks and of Canadian Omar Khadr, who is accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade in Afghanistan in 2002.

Ramos and Compean are Going Home

After tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails, after the combined efforts of columnists such as myself and radio and television talk show hosts such as Lou Dobbs, and even after persistent appeals by congressmen such as Dana Rohrabacher, former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean finally received a commutation of their 10-plus year prison sentences from outgoing President George W. Bush and will soon be going home. It’s about time!

Arizona Primes for New Governor

PHOENIX (AP) — Former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s appointment to head the Homeland Security Department leaves Arizona’s top office in new hands — and the state likely on a very different path. Napolitano, a Democrat, leaves her state post halfway through her second four-year term. Her elevation means Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer now seizes the governor’s office. The change comes at a time when the Republican-leaning state faces a budget crisis and will likely mark a major change in how Arizona tackles it. The swap of Brewer for Napolitano also will put a social conservative — and abortion foe — in the governor’s office. Napolitano set legislative records for vetoes by an Arizona governor by killing bills passed by the Legislature on topics ranging from abortion and private school vouchers to border security and eminent domain. Such legislation can now be resurrected without fears of an automatic veto..

Airline Losses Widen

American Airlines parent AMR says it lost $340 million in the fourth quarter as fewer people flew than a year ago. CEO Gerard Arpey says the loss reflects problems facing all airlines. He says moves like cutting capacity have put American in better shape to deal with high fuel prices and a weak economy. United Airlines parent UAL on Wednesday said it lost $1.3 billion in the fourth quarter because of operating losses and fuel-price bets that turned sour as oil prices fell. The Chicago-based carrier also said it would lay off another 1,000 salaried and management staff by the end of this year, in addition to the 1,500 it had already announced. United began 2007 with some 9,000 people in those positions.

More Americans Joining Military as Jobs Dwindle

NEW YORK TIMES: As the number of jobs across the nation dwindles, more Americans are joining the military, lured by a steady paycheck, benefits and training. The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said. And the trend seems to be accelerating. The Army exceeded its targets each month for October, November and December — the first quarter of the new fiscal year — bringing in 21,443 new soldiers on active duty and in the reserves. Of the four armed services, the Army has faced the toughest recruiting challenge in recent years because of high casualty rates in Iraq and long deployments overseas.

Russia Restarts Gas Supplies to Europe via Ukraine

PISAREVKA, Russia (AP) — Russian natural gas began flowing into Europe on Tuesday after a nearly two-week cutoff that left large parts of the continent shivering and underscored its vulnerability and dependence on Russia’s energy. But a higher price Ukraine now has to pay for the Russian gas will further cripple an economy badly hurt by the financial crisis and could set the stage for another gas dispute with Russia. The office of Ukraine’s president has already criticized the deal, saying it hurt the nation’s interests. Europe gets about a fifth of its natural gas from Russia.

India Test Fires Missile in Province near Pakistan

NEW DELHI (AP) — India tested its nuclear-capable Brahmos supersonic cruise missile Tuesday in a province bordering Pakistan, despite already tense relations with Islamabad following the Mumbai terror attacks, a news report said. India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony said the test was pre-planned and not directed at any country, the Press Trust of India news agency reported The test comes amid increased tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. India says Pakistan-based militants plotted and executed the Nov. 26 Mumbai attacks that killed 164 people and has repeatedly insinuated that Pakistani intelligence agents were involved.

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