Marriage Victory in N.J.

The New Jersey Senate rejected the same-sex marriage bill by a vote of 20-14. Thursday’s victory likely blocks same-sex marriage in New Jersey for at least four years, as incoming Governor Christie has promised to veto any same-sex marriage measure that would come to his desk.

Elected Officials Bail on U.S. Marriage Law

In a case with implications for the entire country, California’s Proposition 8 defining marriage as between one man and one woman goes on trial Monday with only private citizens speaking up for the voter-passed constitutional amendment – because state officials have refused to defend it. Much is riding on the case of Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, for the lawsuit is petitioning a federal court to overturn not just a law, but a constitutional amendment passed by the people and affirmed by the state’s Supreme Court. A victory for same-sex marriage advocates in the case could set a precedent for federal courts to overturn every law and amendment in the country currently protecting the traditional definition of marriage. And yet, though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Attorney General Jerry Brown are named as defendants in the suit, both have refused to act in defense of the amendment, leaving it up to the people of California to take a stand for their constitution on their own.

  • Heavy prayer required on this situation

North Korea Tops Christian Persecution List

North Korea, which reportedly has used believers as guinea pigs to test chemical and biological weapons, is the world’s worst persecutor of Christians, while Iran, which may be using Christians as scapegoats for internal opposition to its president, is No. 2 on the Open Doors 2010 World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians in which Shariah, the Islamic religious law, is dominant. A total of 35 nations on the list are under some form of Shariah. The ranking is derived from a questionnaire of 53 questions sent to Open Doors workers, church leaders and experts in 70 nations. North Korea is No. 1 on the list for the eighth straight year. Open Doors reports an estimated 50,000 North Korean Christians are in political prisons. Iran, which previously has been No. 3 on the list, moved up to No. 2, bumping Saudi Arabia, after a wave of arrests of Christians that began in 2008 continued and even intensified last year.

Obama Orders Security Upgrade

President Obama, declaring that the “buck stops with me” when it comes to protecting the nation from terrorists, ordered stepped up aviation security and released a declassified report on intelligence failures behind the near-catastrophic Christmas Day attack. Under the directives issued Thursday, airline passengers will face more pat-downs and many will be put through body-scanning machines in coming months while counterterrorism officials revamp the government’s terrorist watch lists and establish clearer lines of accountability to follow intelligence leads about plots. The changes Obama ordered for the intelligence community steered clear of broad systemic changes, focusing instead on refining and strengthening existing programs. President Obama’s push to revamp the terror watch list, improve airport screening and hold the intelligence community more accountable for tracking suspects does not go far enough, some lawmakers say, arguing that more specific steps need to be taken to avoid a repeat of the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

In a six-page report on the incident, the White House offered a stinging critique of the government’s lapses leading up to the day alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a flight from Amsterdam headed for Detroit. The report said that the government “had sufficient information to have uncovered and potentially disrupted” the attack. Analysts failed to “connect the dots” between those plots and information given by Abdulmutallab’s father to U.S. officials that his son had become radicalized and planned to travel to Yemen. Counterterrorism agencies knew that a potent branch of al-Qaeda in Yemen, where the Associated Press has reported that Abdulmutallab told authorities he received training and explosives, was plotting to attack the United States.

Democratic Departures Encourage Republicans

A stunning wave of Democratic retirements and defections signals a “tsunami” of voter discontent that will hurt President Obama’s ability to deliver on his ambitious legislative agenda, Fox News political analyst Dick Morris told Newsmax in an exclusive interview Tuesday. In a single day Tuesday, three Democrats announced they would not run for re-election: Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; and Gov. Bill Ritter, D-Colo. Their decisions followed closely on the heels of the announcement by Alabama blue dog Rep. Parker Griffith that he would switch parties and become a Republican. The Democratic setbacks are expected to make it much more difficult for President Obama to persuade skittish Democrats to enact his legislative agenda, including energy cap and trade, pro-union “card check” legislation, and immigration reform.

IRS Helpline a Joke

The most serious problem facing taxpayers is finding someone at the IRS to answer their questions, according to a federal report. Taxpayers who call the IRS’ toll-free number to speak with a customer service representative face lengthy waits, and many never get through, Nina Olson, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate, said in her annual report to Congress on Wednesday. Olson said the percentage of callers who reached an IRS representative has been declining, from 83% during the 2007 filing season to 64% last year. The IRS also has estimated that callers who get through will have to wait an average of 12 minutes.

Youth Population Dropping

States in the Northeast and Midwest saw their youth population drop by more than 1.2 million in the past decade, a decline that threatens the regions’ economic stability and future growth. An analysis of Census data released Thursday shows that the number of children under 18 fell in half of the nation’s states and the District of Columbia from 2000 to 2009. Vermont‘s youth population fell 14%. North Dakota and Maine also experienced double-digit drops. Nevada had the largest growth in its under-18 population, a 33% jump. Arizona was second at 27%.The USA’s youth population grew 3% in the nine years while the overall population increased 9%.

  • More retired people, fewer workers. Doesn’t bode well for the U.S. economy, particularly Social Security

Youths Sexually Abused in Juvenile Prisons

More than 12% of youths in juvenile prisons are sexually abused while in custody there, according to a Justice Department study out Thursday, and the vast majority of cases involve female staff and boys under their supervision. In the worst facilities surveyed — in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas — more than 30% of youths reported they had been sexually victimized. The study, the first of its kind, shows a rate of sexual assault more than seven times higher than that indicated by a 2008 Justice Department report that collected sexual abuse claims to juvenile facility administrators. In nearly half the incidents with staff, youths reported having sexual contact as a result of force.

California Passes Major School-Reform Package

The California Legislature has passed landmark education reforms designed to overhaul the state’s worst schools. The reforms will allow California to compete for part of the $4.3 billion being made available to states under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Under the legislation, state officials could close failing schools, convert them to charter schools or replace the principal and half the staff. Parents whose children are stuck in the lowest-performing schools would be given greater leeway to send their children elsewhere and could petition to turn around a chronically failing school.

Companies Balk at EPA’s Smog-Limit Recommendations

Utility companies, refineries and factories may have to spend up to $90 billion to meet new smog standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, a cost they say is too high in the current economy. The EPA said those costs will be offset by up to $100 billion in savings in health care as people breathe cleaner air, resulting in fewer cases of asthma, bronchitis and other smog-related symptoms. The EPA proposal would lower the permitted concentration of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, to a level of between 60 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion. The exact level will be decided by the Obama administration later this year after hearings.

Hazards of Obesity Now Rival Smoking

Obesity now poses as great a threat to Americans’ quality of life as smoking, a new study shows. Researchers at Columbia University and The City College of New York analyzed 1993-2008 data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that included interviews with more than 3.5 million adults. The results showed that the quality-adjusted life years lost to obesity are equal to, or greater than, those lost because of smokingFrom 1993 to 2008, the number of adult smokers decreased 18.5% and smoking-related quality-adjusted life years lost remained relatively stable. Over that same time, the proportion of obese Americans increased 85%, resulting in more quality-adjusted life years lost.

Recession’s Scars Will Linger

The aftershocks from deep recessions reverberate for years, even decades, and take an enduring toll on everything from government finances to countless upended individual lives. Millions of workers who’ve lost their hold on the labor market are seeing their incomes reset to a permanently lower level. Young people who entered the workforce this year can expect to earn substantially less during their careers than those who start work during booms. As state and local governments slash spending, some children will lose educational opportunities, including the chance to attend college. Others will be weakened by untreated physical and mental illnesses. The ballooning U.S. debt will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars more each year in annual interest payments.

Today, 15.4 million workers are jobless, more than twice as many as in December 2007. With the Fed expecting the unemployment rate to remain as high as 7.5% through 2012, many Americans will search in vain for new work. Of those laid off, few will regain their previous standard of living. To get work, many will face unwelcome moves to distant states or be forced to abandon preferred careers.

Economic News

Consumer borrowing dropped by a record amount in November, the 10th straight month that Americans relied less on credit cards and banks hoarded their cash. The dramatic decline in borrowing — $17.5 billion in November versus $5 billion that analysts had projected — underscores the battered state of household finances and the uncertain employment picture. Households are struggling “to put their balance sheets in order after the credit and asset bubbles popped,” Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc. said.

Companies cut 84,000 jobs in December, the fewest since March 2008. Layoff announcements also fell to the lowest in two years. Jobs advertised online rose 255,000 last month, the most since October 2005, the Conference Board said.

The number of people claiming unemployment benefits for the first time barely rose last week, after two weeks of sharp drops. The four-week average of claims, which smooths fluctuations, fell for the 18th straight week to 450,250. The number of continuing claims dropped 179,000 to 4.8 million, the department said. But that figure doesn’t include an additional 5.4 million people receiving unemployment under federal emergency programs.

Last-minute holiday shoppers brought relief to the nation’s retailers, handing them modest sales gains for the holiday season and prompting several to raise their fourth-quarter profit outlooks. The improved profit picture comes because retailers never had to resort to drastic price-cutting after keeping inventories lean. Still, retailers are facing tough months ahead as consumer spending is expected to remain weak amid high unemployment and tight credit.

China overtook the United States as the biggest auto market in 2009 and automakers should see more strong growth there this year, an industry group reported Friday Boosted by Beijing‘s stimulus, 2009 total vehicle sales are estimated at 13.6 million, growing about 45% from 2008. By contrast, U.S. sales of cars and light trucks plunged 21% in 2009 to 10.4 million.

China also overtook Germany as the world’s top exporter after December exports jumped 17.7% for their first increase in 14 months, data showed Sunday, in another sign of China’s rise as a global economic force.

Israel

The long period of calm in Israel’s south seemed to be unraveling on Thursday as a Katyusha rocket landed near Ashkelon, ten mortars were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip, and an IDF unit patrolling near the border fence was shot at by Palestinian gunman, while Israeli air forces struck four targets in the Strip in response, killing one person and wounding two others according to Palestinian sources.

Yemen

Yemen‘s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country opposes any direct intervention by U.S. or other foreign troops in the fight against al-Qaeda. His comments came as Yemeni security forces launched a manhunt for the suspected leader of an al-Qaeda cell believed to be behind a threatened attack that forced the closure this week of the U.S. and British embassies in San’a. The U.S. says the Arhab cell was behind a plot to send al-Qaeda fighters into San’a to carry out attacks, possibly against foreign embassies.

Egypt

Police arrested on Friday three men suspected of carrying out a Christmas Eve drive-by shooting in southern Egypt that killed six Christians, a security official said.. Witnesses and security officials say relatives of six people killed in an attack on churchgoers leaving a midnight Mass for Coptic Christmas smashed ambulances in riots outside a southern Egyptian hospital to demand the bodies be turned over for burial. Three gunmen in a car sprayed automatic gunfire into a crowd leaving a church in the town of Nag Hamadi, about 40 miles from the ancient ruins of Luxor. The lead attacker is identified as a Muslim.

Egyptian security forces engaged in a series of violent clashes on Wednesday with hundreds of foreign activists of the Viva Palestina movement arriving as part of an aid convoy to Gaza and then with Palestinians throwing stones and shooting across the Rafah border area, leaving one Egyptian policeman dead and dozens wounded on all sides.

Pakistan

A blast apparently caused by a suicide vest stored in a house in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi killed eight suspected militants Friday, underscoring the city’s use by insurgents bent on destabilizing the nuclear-armed, U.S.-allied country. The explosion occurred in Baldia, a mostly ethnic Pashtun neighborhood that is a suspected Taliban hide-out. TV footage showed police seizing guns, suicide vests and grenades from the site.

Two suspected U.S. drone missile strikes killed at least 13 people Wednesday in an area of Pakistan‘s volatile northwest teeming with militants suspected in a recent suicide attack that killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan, intelligence officials said. The lawless North Waziristan tribal area hit Wednesday is home to several militant groups that stage cross-border attacks against coalition troops, including the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. Counting the latest strikes, suspected U.S. drones have attacked North Waziristan five times since the CIA bombing a week ago, killing at least 20 people.

Iraq

A series of blasts killed six people in Iraq‘s western province of Anbar on Thursday, a police official said, in the latest attack to hit the province that was once the heartland of the al-Qaeda-led insurgency. One explosion targeted a house belonging to Lt. Colonel Mohammed Slaiman, the director of the anti-terrorism unit in the town of Hit, about 85 miles (140 kilometers) west of Baghdad. A second explosion targeted the home of his father next door. Slaiman was wounded and his mother, two sisters, another family member and a child were killed. The combat death of a U.S. soldier Tuesday in Iraq was the first in 43 days, the longest stretch since the war began.

Afghanistan

A suicide bomber killed seven people at a busy bazaar in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday, and a bomb hidden in a garbage container outside a provincial governor’s compound slightly wounded the official.  NATO says a U.S. service member has been killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Afghanistan. Use of improvised explosive devices by Afghanistan’s insurgents has risen sharply and take a heavy toll on international forces. About 40% of all U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 were caused by such bombs.

China

Chinese authorities kept concerns about the safety of a Shanghai dairy’s products secret for nearly a year before announcing last week that the company had been shut for manufacturing contaminated milk, an official said Thursday. The delay in notifying the public about the tainted products raises questions about the effectiveness of China’s efforts to restore confidence in its food industry after several safety scandals in recent years — including one involving contaminated milk — that exposed serious flaws in monitoring the nation’s food supply. The bureau said the dairy was selling milk powder and condensed milk tainted with the industrial chemical melamine, which can cause kidney stones and kidney failure. The same chemical had been introduced into infant formula and other milk products in 2008 in one of the country’s worst food safety crises

Earthquakes

A powerful offshore earthquake rattled communities in far northern California, cutting power to thousands of customers, causing minor damage to homes and businesses and forcing many people to seek treatment for cuts and bruises from falling debris. Authorities said no major injuries have been reported.  The 6.5 magnitude temblor hit at about 4:27 p.m. PT Saturday and was centered in the Pacific about 22 miles west of Ferndale, but was felt as far south as Capitola in central California and as far north as central Oregon, the U.S. Geological Survey said. In Eureka, about 240 miles north of San Francisco, residents of an apartment building were evacuated, and an office building and two other commercial structures were declared unsafe for occupancy. More than a dozen aftershocks, some with magnitudes as powerful as 4.5, rumbled for several hours after the initial quake.

Weather

By the end of this weekend, 180 million Americans will have shivered through a record-setting bout of arctic cold sweeping from the Great Plains and the Midwest to the Deep South. Sixty percent of the U.S. population will experience temperatures 15 to 30 degrees below average at some point by Sunday night. A week-long cold snap has shut down scores of schools, delayed hundreds of flights, threatened and damaged crops and even knocked iguanas out of trees. At least 19 deaths have been blamed on the cold and icy roads.

Snow was piled so high in Iowa that drivers couldn’t see across intersections and a North Dakota snowblower repair shop was overwhelmed with business as residents braced Thursday for heavy snow and wind chills as low as 52 below zero. Dangerously cold wind chill levels hit the Midwest early Thursday including 52 below zero in northern North Dakota, negative 40 in parts of South Dakota and minus 27 in northeast Nebraska,. Frigid weather also is gripping the South, where a rare cold snap was expected to bring snow and ice Thursday to states from South Carolina to Louisiana. Forecasters said wind chills could drop to near zero at night in some areas.

Germans faced the cancellation of hundreds of flights Saturday as fresh snow blew in from the south, and Britons shivered through the country’s longest cold snap in three decades as icy weather maintained its grip on Europe. One meteorologist called the conditions Siberian. More than 300 car accidents were reported on icy streets in the southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg; more than 40 people were injured. The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia reported 108 accidents.

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