Signs of the Times

Court: Christian School Can Expel Lesbian Students

MSNBC reports that a California court has ruled in favor of the Lutheran school which expelled two female students for lesbian behavior in 2005. The girls’ attorneys argued that the school should be compared to a business because it takes tuition, and therefore should not be allowed to discriminate. “The school’s religious message is inextricably intertwined with its secular functions,” wrote Justice Betty A. Richli in the appeals court opinion. “The whole purpose of sending one’s child to a religious school is to ensure that he or she learns even secular subjects within a religious framework.” Timothy J. Tracey, litigation counsel for the Center for Law & Religious Freedom, told the Los Angeles Times the ruling “preserves the right of Christian schools in California to make admission and discipline decisions consistent with their religious beliefs.” The girls’ attorney plans to continue the case to the state Supreme Court.

‘False Solution’: Pope Weighs in on Euthanasia Eebate

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday that euthanasia is a “false solution” to suffering, adding his voice to a bitter debate in Italy over the fate of a comatose woman whose father wants to remove her feeding tube. During his Sunday blessing, Benedict said that love can help confront pain and that “no tear, from those who suffer and those who are with them, is lost before God.” In July, Italy’s highest court ruled that Eluana Englaro’s feeding tube could be removed, upholding a lower court ruling. But Italy’s health minister, Maurizio Sacconi, issued a decree in December telling hospitals across the country that they must guarantee care for people in vegetative states. Patients have a right to refuse treatment, but no law allows them to have a living will in case they become unconscious.

New Analysis finds African-Americans are Markedly More Religious than Overall U.S. Population

RELIGION NEWS SERVICES —  On the eve of Black History Month, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new analysis that paints a detailed religious portrait of African-Americans. The analysis finds that African-Americans are markedly more religious than the U.S. population as a whole on a variety of measures, including reporting a religious affiliation, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and the importance of religion in people’s lives. Compared with other racial and ethnic groups, African-Americans are among the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, with fully 87% of African-Americans describing themselves as belonging to one religious group or another. The analysis also finds that nearly eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. A large majority of African-Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular faith (72%) say religion plays at least a somewhat important role in their lives; nearly half (45%) of unaffiliated African-Americans say religion is very important in their lives, roughly three times the percentage who says this among the religiously unaffiliated population overall (16%). African-Americans express a high degree of comfort with religion’s role in politics, with roughly six-in-ten saying that houses of worship should express their views on social and political topics and roughly half saying that there has been too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders.

Bill Creates Detention Camps in U.S. for ‘Emergencies’

WORLDNETDAILY —  Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., has introduced to the House of Representatives a new bill, H.R. 645, calling for the secretary of homeland security to establish no fewer than six national emergency centers for corralling civilians on military installations. The proposed bill, which has received little mainstream media attention, appears designed to create the type of detention center that those concerned about use of the military in domestic affairs fear could be used as concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany. The bill also appears to expand the president’s emergency power, much as the executive order signed by President Bush on May 9, 2007, that gave the president the authority to declare an emergency and take over the direction of all federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments without even consulting Congress.

Ø JJ Commentary: The New World Order is beginning to set up camp. Even if this bill fails, this is a harbinger of things to come.

California Facing Worst Drought in Modern History

ECHO SUMMIT, Calif. (AP) — State officials reported a Sierra Nevada snowpack smaller than normal on Thursday and said California may be at the beginning of its worst drought in modern history. Residents were immediately urged to conserve water. The snowpack was about 61% of its usual depth across the 400-mile-long mountain range, according to the state Department of Water Resources, which released the findings as part of the second snow survey of the season. Department Director Lester Snow said the results indicate California could be heading for a third dry year. California’s largest reservoirs — Shasta and Oroville — are less than half as full as they should be for this time of year. The snowpack water content needs to be roughly double what it is today by April to replenish the reservoirs.

Cities, Towns Ready to Vie for Stimulus Funds

USA TODAY Thousands of projects around the country that will be vying for money from Washington if the economic stimulus package — which has swelled to nearly $900 billion in the Senate — is signed into law, possibly within two weeks. “Feeding frenzy,” predicts David Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency that monitors federal spending. At least $100 billion in the bill, which passed in the House last week as a $819 billion version, is aimed at construction projects that towns and cities say they can’t afford to pay for on their own, environmental and energy programs and school modernization plans. To be eligible for the funds, projects must be what President Obama calls “shovel-ready.” That means they must have plans in place and contracts ready to be signed. Most of the money would have to be spent within 18 months to get architects, engineers, plumbers, electricians and construction crews and others on the job fast. Still to be determined: What projects will get funded and who will decide.

Consumer Spending and Incomes Fall; Savings Rise

WASHINGTON (AP) — Consumer spending fell for a record sixth straight month in December as recession-battered households, worried about surging layoffs, boosted their savings rates to the highest level since May. The Commerce Department said Monday that personal consumption spending, which accounts for the largest portion of total economic activity, dropped 1% in December. Incomes, reflecting a wave of layoffs, fell for a third straight month, dropping by 0.2% Worried about the possibility of more job cuts, Americans boosted their savings rate to 3.6% of their after-tax incomes in December. “If people start saving more they will be spending less, so the downturn will be more severe and long lasting,” said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James and Associates.

Ø JJ Commentary: Hmm. In order to fix the debt-ridden economy the government proposes more debt, and experts say saving money is a bad thing. Is something upside down here? The Bible says to avoid debt and save for the future. What a world.

As Economic Fears Rise, Families on Verge of Unraveling

USA TODAY Signs abound that the battered economy is causing serious damage to the mental health and family lives of a growing number of Americans. Requests for therapists have soared, Americans say they’re stressed out, and domestic-violence and suicide hotlines are reporting increased calls. There has been a sharp rise in mental trauma even among those who still have jobs: The demand for therapists surged 40% from June to December — driven largely by money-related fears — at ComPsych, which runs the nation’s largest employee-assistance mental-health program, says ComPsych chairman and CEO Richard Chaifetz. Nearly half of Americans said they were more stressed than a year ago, and about one-third rated their stress level as “extreme” in surveys out in September from the American Psychological Association. That was before the stock-market dive.

Federal Payroll Keeps Growing Despite Downturn

WASHINGTON — Companies are cutting jobs by the tens of thousands. State and local governments are penny-pinching, too. So what about Uncle Sam? Tough times for him as well? Not exactly. In fact the number of federal workers is on the rise. That might seem strange to the 11 million people in the U.S. who are out of work — and the millions more who fear they soon will be. Shouldn’t Washington pare down too? But it is unlikely that President Barack Obama will put any of the nearly 2 million federal civil servants out in the street in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The government’s civilian, nonmilitary work force peaked in the late 1960s at about 2.3 million. It was 2 million or more through the mid-1990s, when the government cut more than 400,000 jobs — many through military base closings. Since 2001, civilian employment in the executive branch, excluding postal employees, has edged upward from 1.7 million to about 2 million, largely because of new homeland security jobs. More federal job openings are on the horizon. A report released in January by Christina Romer, head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, an economic policy adviser to Vice President Joe Biden estimated that 244,000 government jobs would be created or saved.

Ø JJ Commentary: Government is an organism of politicians and bureaucrats which strives to grow and resists shrinkage, regardless of which party is in charge.

Welfare Aid Isn’t Growing as Economy Drops Off

NEW YORK TIMES — Despite soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis in decades, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year, and nationally the number of people receiving cash assistance remained at or near the lowest in more than 40 years. The trends, based on an analysis of new state data collected by The New York Times, raise questions about how well a revamped welfare system with great state discretion is responding to growing hardships. Of the 12 states where joblessness grew most rapidly, eight reduced or kept constant the number of people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the main cash welfare program for families with children. Nationally, for the 12 months ending October 2008, the rolls inched up a fraction of 1 percent. The deepening recession offers a fresh challenge to the program, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 amid bitter protest and became one of the most closely watched social experiments in modern memory. The program, which mostly serves single mothers, ended a 60-year-old entitlement to cash aid, replacing it with time limits and work requirements, and giving states latitude to discourage people from joining the welfare rolls. While it was widely praised in the boom years that followed, skeptics warned it would fail the needy when times turned tough. Critics argue that years of pressure to cut the welfare rolls has left an obstacle-ridden program that chases off the poor, even when times are difficult.

Steep Slide in Economy as Unsold Goods Pile Up

NEW YORK TIMES — The economy shrank at an accelerating pace late last year, the government reported on Friday. The actual decline in the gross domestic product — at a 3.8 percent annual rate — fell short of the 5 to 6 percent that most economists had expected for the fourth quarter. But that was because consumption collapsed so quickly that goods piled up in inventory, unsold but counted as part of the nation’s output. Virtually none dispute that the usual route to recovery, cheap credit, has failed to work this time — not when lenders are pulling back, despite prodding from the Federal Reserve, and borrowers are focused more on paying down debt and building up savings. The concern now, however, is deflation, or falling prices, and Friday’s report from the Bureau of Economic Analysis suggested that the fear had some justification.

More Closings, Job Cuts, Losses in Great Depression 2.0

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street ended its worst January ever by stumbling again over the banking system and the economy. The major indexes all fell sharply for the second straight day, leaving the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index with record percentage drops for January — 8.84% and 8.57%, respectively. Some market watchers believe that’s a bad omen for the rest of the year, as the market usually ends in a year down after having fallen in January.

NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Michael Bloomberg says Wall Street firms are expected to lose a total of $47.2 billion for 2008, and even more in 2009. The figures are devastating for New York City. The mayor says Wall Street’s losses will affect the city for years. The city is also now projected to lose nearly 300,000 jobs through 2010. Some 46,000 will come from the financial sector. The budget gap for fiscal 2010 is at $4 billion and growing.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators have closed Salt Lake City-based MagnetBank, the fourth U.S. bank failure this month. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was appointed as receiver of the bank, which had assets of $292.9 million and deposits of $282.8 million as of Dec. 2. The FDIC says it was unable to find another bank willing to take over MagnetBank’s deposits and operations. As a result, the agency says checks will be mailed on Monday morning to retail depositors for the amount of their insured funds.

DUBLIN (AP) — Waterford Crystal workers clashed with security guards and mounted a sit-down protest Friday after bankruptcy officials shut down their world-famous but debt-crippled factory. Union leaders warned that more than 200 workers would refuse to leave the factory in the city of Waterford, southeast Ireland, until the receivers handling Waterford Wedgwood PLC’s bankruptcy proceedings reversed the closure. The approximately 650 remaining Irish employees at the iconic plant had already been reduced to working part-time as the company negotiated with potential American buyers to take over part or all of the business.

Freddie Mac to Let Residents Rent Homes after Foreclosure

USA TODAY — Freddie Mac on Friday plans to announce a first-of-a-kind plan that lets homeowners and tenants temporarily stay in homes in foreclosure by renting them back, an effort to stop many of the sudden evictions that have come along with the housing crisis. The program will let thousands of qualified former homeowners, as well as families renting from landlords, enter into a monthly lease on their homes after they have been acquired by Freddie Mac through foreclosure. Freddie Mac officials expect the program to help about 8,600 families in 2009.

Arizona Erases $1.6 billion Budget Deficit

The $1.6 billion Arizona fiscal year 2009 budget deficit has been erased, but the governor and legislative leaders are warning that more cuts may be needed.  “Additional fixes are very likely to be required for the fiscal year 2009 budget, and even more difficult decisions remain as we confront the realities of a $3.4 billion deficit for fiscal year 2010,” Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement issued minutes after the Legislature finalized budget cuts early Saturday. Brewer made the action official when she signed the six-bill package later that morning. They were the first bills she’s signed in her 10-day tenure, and they contained some of the biggest cuts the state has seen: nearly $300 million to education, more than $90 million in various welfare and social-service programs, and $22 million in prisons The budget passed largely along partisan lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, following a tense three-day special session.

United States Puts up $20 Million for Gaza Relief

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States on Friday made an emergency contribution of more than $20 million for urgent relief efforts in the Gaza Strip, a day after the United Nations launched a flash appeal for $613 million to help Palestinians recover from Israel’s three-week military operation there. The State Department said President Obama had authorized the use of $20.3 million from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund for humanitarian assistance to the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza. The money will go to U.N. agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which are distributing emergency food assistance, providing medical care and temporary shelter, creating temporary employment and restoring access to electricity and potable water, the department said in a statement.

Militants Launch Rockets into Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) — Gaza militants launched two rockets and a mortar shell into southern Israel early Sunday, drawing a threat of “disproportionate” retaliation from Israel’s prime minister and further straining a cease-fire that ended Israel’s Gaza offensive. There were no casualties, though one projectile landed near a kindergarten in a community near Gaza, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Warning sirens sent residents scrambling for shelter. The Israeli offensive was aimed at halting years of rocket attacks, and the military declared a cease-fire on Jan. 18 after declaring its goals had been achieved. But Sunday’s rockets, which followed sporadic rocket fire and the killing of an Israeli soldier in a border bombing attack last week, illustrated the difficulties of achieving a complete end to the attacks. Despite years of efforts, Israel’s high-tech military has failed to stop the projectiles.

An Israeli aircraft struck a car traveling in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday, killing a Palestinian militant and further straining a truce with Hamas, even as the Islamic militant group sent a delegation to Egypt in hopes of wrapping up a long-term cease-fire. The airstrike came a day after Israel’s prime minister threatened “harsh and disproportionate” retaliation for continued violations of the informal Jan. 18 cease-fire. With Hamas signaling it is willing to enter a cease-fire with Israel, it was the U.S.-backed Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas whose so-called military wing took responsibility for a barrage of rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip today.

Government Allies Gain Ground in Iraqi Elections

BAGHDAD (AP) — Allies of Iraq’s U.S.-backed prime minister appeared Sunday to have made gains in the provincial elections, rewarding groups credited with reining in insurgents and militias, according to unofficial projections. Initial results from Saturday’s landmark voting are not expected for days. But reports by Iraqi media and interviews by the Associated Press suggest candidates backing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had strong showings in the crucial Shiite heartland in southern Iraq. If the indications prove true, it would strengthen al-Maliki’s hand ahead of national elections later this year and reflect a shift away from the more religious parties dominating the country. Iraq’s elections went off relatively smoothly and free of violence, yet only half of all eligible voters turned out Saturday for the crucial milestone toward establishing a lasting stability in the war-torn nation.

Suicide Bomber Kills 21 Afghan Policemen

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber in a police uniform detonated his explosives inside a police training center in southern Afghanistan on Monday, killing 21 officers and wounding at least 20, officials said. The Taliban claimed responsibility. The Taliban has made a comeback in the last three years after their initial defeat following a U.S. invasion in 2001. Southern Afghanistan is the center of their fight against the government and international military forces, and militants control wide swaths of territory. Over the last several years, police have borne the brunt of militant attacks. In 2008, some 868 policemen were killed in insurgent attacks, according to a tally of figures collected by The Associated Press. More than 900 police were killed in 2007.

Audits: Afghan Aid Lacks Accountability

USA TODAY — After seven years of work in Afghanistan, the U.S. government’s premier development agency continues to pay hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private contractors that frequently fail to demonstrate results, according to aid workers, former diplomats and audits by the agency’s inspector general. President Obama said last week he was “committed to refocusing attention and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan.” He named special envoy Richard Holbrooke to oversee aid and diplomacy in those countries. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she wants the U.S. Agency for International Development to assume development tasks ceded to the Pentagon. Yet USAID’s multibillion-dollar Afghanistan reconstruction effort continues to struggle. Of six different audits conducted in the last year by the agency’s inspector general, only one found a program working largely as it was supposed to.

Riot Police Fire Tear Gas at Greek Farmers

ATHENS (AP) — Riot police fired tear gas at farmers Monday to prevent them from driving their tractors to the Greek capital as part of a protest demanding government financial help. At least two people, including a government opposition deputy, were hurt in the scuffles at the port of Piraeus outside Athens. Greek farmers have been protesting for two weeks over low prices for their products and demanding financial help from the government. They have been using their tractors to block border crossings and highways across the country for days.

Report: Myanmar’s Minority Christians Badly Persecuted

The Associated Press reports that Myanmar’s minority populations face a hard road whether they stay or leave the country, according to a new report by the Human Rights Watch. “The Chin are unsafe in Burma [also known as Myanmar] and unprotected in India,” the report said. The Chin, about 90 percent of which profess Christianity, have been forced to endure involuntary labor, torture, extrajudicial killings and religious persecution at the hands of the country’s military junta. Those interviewed in the report also gave stories of forced service as unpaid porters for the army and unpaid work on infrastructure. Government officials have repeatedly denied that these situations occur. An estimated 100,000 have fled Myanmar into neighboring India, where they are not welcome. Many have been forced to return to Myanmar from India.

Kenya Red Cross: 113 Dead in Oil Blaze

MOLO, Kenya (AP) — Rescuers combed a scorched forest for corpses Sunday and burn victims overwhelmed hospitals after an overturned gasoline tanker exploded as hundreds of people were trying to scoop up free fuel. At least 113 were killed and nearly 200 hurt, officials said. Saturday’s explosion was one of this East African nation’s deadliest accidents. The Kenyan Red Cross said the death toll would likely rise. Overwhelmed hospitals nearby were packed with victims, including small children, suffering from horrific burns.

UN Panel Concerned about Congo’s ‘Witch Children’

GENEVA (AP) — A U.N. panel has expressed concern about the growing number of street children in Congo accused of witchcraft and subject to violence and torture as a result. The Committee on the Rights of the Child says children suspected of witchcraft are kept as prisoners in religious buildings where they are mistreated or even killed under the pretext of exorcism. The Geneva-based panel said in a report published Friday that sexual exploitation and abuse is rife in Congo’s cities. It says girls are sometimes forced into prostitution by their own parents at a very young age.

Somali Lawmakers Elect Moderate Islamist President

DJIBOUTI (AP) — Somalia’s parliament elected a moderate Islamist leader as the country’s new president early Saturday, handing over the elusive task of stabilizing a country wracked by violence and anarchy for nearly 20 years. Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed was elected in neighboring Djibouti after the last president — a former soldier, rebel and warlord named Abdullahi Yusuf — resigned in December after failing to pacify the country during his four-years as president. Ahmed was chairman of the Islamic Courts Union that ran Mogadishu for six months in 2006 before Ethiopian soldiers drove them from power. His election raises hopes that he will bring many of Somalia’s Islamic factions into a more inclusive government. But the Western-backed government wields little control in Somalia — just a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu, where African Union peacekeepers patrol. An Islamic insurgent group called al-Shabab, who say they don’t recognize the government, have taken over most of Somalia. The U.S. considers al-Shabab a terror organization with links to al-Qaeda.

Ky. Deploys Nat’l Guard for Storm Cleanup

MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Steve Beshear deployed every last one of his Army National Guardsmen on Saturday, with his state still reeling after a deadly ice storm encrusted it this week. More than half a million homes and businesses, most of them in Kentucky, remained without electricity from the Ozarks through Appalachia. Finding fuel — heating oil along with gas for cars and generators — was another struggle for those trying to tough it out at home, with hospitals and other essential services getting priority over members of the public. The addition of 3,000 soldiers and airmen makes 4,600 Guardsmen pressed into service. It’s the largest call-up in Kentucky history. The outages disabled water systems, and authorities warned it could be days or weeks before power was restored in the most remote spots. National Guard troops armed with chainsaws and beef stew rations reached out to residents still without power Sunday, with 400,000 still without power.

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