Signs of the Times (1/11/12)

Supreme Court Sides with Church Employee Dismissal on Religious Grounds
The Supreme Court has sided unanimously with a church sued for firing an employee on religious grounds, is-suing an opinion on Wednesday that religious employers can keep the government out of hiring and firing decisions. In the case of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Cheryl Perich, a teacher, argued that the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., had discriminated against her under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the high court found that Perich was was properly classified as a “minister,” meaning she falls within the “ministerial exemption” from many employment laws. “The exception … ensures that the au-thority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone,” the court found.

Doomsday Clock Moved Closer to Midnight
Citing ongoing threats from nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” one minute closer to midnight on Tuesday. The clock was moved from six to five minutes to midnight. The closer to a setting of midnight it gets, the closer it is estimated that a global disaster will occur. The clock is symbolic and has been maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. The group was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. “There are still 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to kill all of humanity many times over,” said Robert Socolow of Princeton University at a press conference in Washington D.C., on Tuesday. The bulletin has grown into an organization focused more generally on manmade threats to human civilization. The clock came closest to midnight — just two minutes away — in 1953 after the successful test of a hydrogen bomb by the USA. It has been as far away as 17 minutes, set there in 1991 following the demise of the Soviet Union.

  • While scientifically driven, the clock is not far from the Truth of a doomsday Tribulation that is just over the horizon

Salt Lake City Tops ‘Gayest Cities in America’
Salt Lake City ranks No. 1 on this year’s list of Gayest Cities in America, according to The Advocate, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine. The magazine acknowledges that Utah’s capital is an unexpected pick for its third annual list: “While those unfamiliar with the Beehive State are likely to conjure images of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, far-less-oppressive-than-it-used-to-be Salt Lake City has earned its queer cred.” Rounding out the top five on The Advocate’s list: Orlando, Cambridge, Mass., Fort Lauderdale and Seat-tle. Rounding out the Top 15: Ann Arbor, Mich., Minneapolis, Knoxville, Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Little Rock, Ark., Portland, Austin, TX., Long Beach, CA, and Denver. The Advocate says its “decidedly subjective criteria” for compiling the list include the number of: LGBT elected officials, softball teams that competed in the Gay Softball World Series, International Mr. Leather Competition semifinalists, LGBT bookstores and nude yoga classes.

  • While a surprise in some ways, the spiritual darkness of Mormonism is bound to attract heightened demonic influence. Where’s San Francisco on the list?

U.S. Court Allows Texas to Enforce Abortion-Sonogram Law
Texas can begin enforcing a requirement that women undergo a sonogram before having an abortion, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In overturning a lower court’s injunction, the appellate judges indicated they believe the law is constitutional. In August, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had ruled that portions of the law, which had not yet taken effect, violate the free speech rights of both doctors and patients. The Center for Re-productive Rights, which filed the lawsuit, called the appeals court’s ruling “unprecedented.” The center said it is evaluating its legal options. Texas health officials weren’t clear when enforcement would begin.

Appeals Court Blocks Oklahoma Ban on Sharia Law
Oklahoma’s voter-approved ban on Islamic sharia law is likely unconstitutional and should not take force, the federal appeals court in Denver has ruled, upholding a lower court decision and injunction. The amendment, approved in November 2010 by 70% of Oklahoma voters, declares that state courts “shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law.” “Given the lack of evidence of any concrete problem, any harm Appellants seek to remedy with the proposed amendment is speculative at best,” the three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. The case, brought by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, now returns to the lower court, which will hear arguments in the lawsuit and rule on the constitutionality of the measure. A permanent injunction is expected.

  • The specter of constitutional harm is not “speculative” but very real as international law has already been cited in a number of U.S. court cases as well as in a handful of Muslim cases decided by the application of Sharia law.

Family Research Council Files Brief on Obamacare
The Family Research Council and more than two dozen Republican members of Congress have filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court aimed at overturning Obamacare. The council brief, which was joined by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas and 26 other GOP lawmakers, argues that the court should strike down the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because it requires all Americans to carry health insurance under the threat of financial penalty. The Obama administration submitted its opening brief to the court last Friday, arguing that the law is necessary to control the rising costs of healthcare nationwide. The court has accepted four cases challenging the law. Oral arguments are scheduled for March.

Feds Ban New Mining Claims near Grand Canyon
A decision to limit uranium mining on public lands near Grand Canyon National Park could turn into an election-year issue over jobs and the cost of protecting the environment. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the order Monday to ban new hard-rock mining activities on about 1 million acres of public lands near the Canyon. Doing so, he said, will preserve an iconic wonder for millions of visitors and safeguard water and natural re-sources for millions more Westerners. But even before Salazar’s public event in Washington, D.C., Republicans began accusing the White House of caving in to liberal interest groups and framed the action as a job-killer. The decision was not unexpected. The Interior Department endorsed the mining ban last fall after reviewing the environmental consequences of allowing mines to operate or putting the land off-limits to new claims. The government has enforced a temporary ban for more than two years, withdrawing the land from acreage open to mining. The ban applies only to new claims. Existing mines or operations based on claims already validated can proceed. The Interior Department estimates as many as 11 mines could open over the 20-year life of the land withdrawal, about one-third as many as could open without the ban.

  • In a fallen world of good and evil, there are no perfect solutions. While it seems good to preserve the Grand Canyon area, creating more jobs and diminishing our oil dependency also seems good. Perfect solutions, however, will only return to the earth when Jesus comes back to rule and reign.

Guantanamo Closure Hopes Fade as Prison Turns Ten
Open for 10 years on Wednesday, the Guantanamo Bay prison seems more established than ever. The deadline set by President Obama to close Guantanamo came and went two years ago. No detainee has left in a year be-cause of restrictions on transfers, and indefinite military detention is now enshrined in U.S. law. Prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba plan to mark the day with sit-ins, banners and a refusal of meals, and will be the subject of demonstrations in London and Washington. Human rights groups and lawyers for prisoners are dismayed that Obama not only failed to overcome resistance in Congress and close the prison, but that his administration has resumed military tribunals at the base and continues to hold men who have been cleared for release. Critics are also angry over the president’s Dec. 31 signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision allowing indefinite military detention without trial.

DEA Helps Colombian Drug Trafficker Launder Cash
Undercover agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, working with their Mexican counterparts, helped transfer millions of dollars in drug cash and even escorted a shipment of cocaine via Dallas to Spain. The covert activities were undertaken as part of an operation to infiltrate and prosecute a major Colombian-Mexican narco-trafficking organization moving cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and the United States. The undercover operation was detailed in Mexican government documents obtained by the New York Times. The documents “describe American counternarcotics agents, Mexican law enforcement officials and a Colombian informant working undercover together over several months in 2007,” Thompson reported. “Together, they conducted numerous wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars at a time, smuggled millions of dollars in bulk cash.

  • Infiltration is one thing, going overboard with assistance is another. After the Fast & Furious gun-running scandal, the DEA is running amok and must be reined in.

Fewer Children Being Born in the U.S., Under-18 Population Declines
The U.S. under-18 population fell between 2010 and 2011, for the first time in at least two decades, the Wall Street Journal reports. In July 2011, the under-18 population was 73,934,272, down 247,000 or 0.3 percent from July 2010. According to an analysis of Census data by demographer William H. Frey of The Brookings Institution, fewer children are being born and “it doesn’t look like a youth boom will reverberate any time soon.” States with the biggest drop in children tended to be concentrated in the Rust Belt and New England; every New England state’s under-18 population fell at least 1 percent from April 2010 to July 11.

Grocers Hire Rating Companies to Score Nutritional Values
Walk into one of 143 King Soopers supermarkets in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and you’ll find nutritional rating numbers on the shelves, right next to the prices. Since October, the grocery store chain, a division of Kroger, has included nutrition ratings by NuVal, one of the nation’s largest rating companies. A growing number of grocers are signing up to have the foods they sell evaluated and ranked for nutritional con-tent at a time when government officials are studying whether more regulations are needed on packaging. Two of the largest companies, NuVal and Guiding Stars, license their scoring systems to more than 3,000 grocery stores nationwide. The scoring systems have some differences. Guiding Stars uses a system of three stars to signify which foods are healthiest. Three stars is the best ranking. NuVal uses a 100-point system: The higher the score, the better the nutritional content.

Economic News
Economists recently surveyed by the Associated Press expect employers to add 2.1 million jobs in 2012, an av-erage of 175,000 a month. That would top the monthly pace of 136,000 last year and 78,000 in 2010, though still fall short of the 250,000 to 300,000 needed to cut unemployment quickly. The USA has recovered just 2.6 million of the 8.8 million jobs lost in the recession.

After losing 2.2 million jobs in the economic downturn, the construction industry is projected to add 113,000 this year, more than doubling last year’s pace and placing it among the fastest-growing sectors, according to a 2012 job market forecast by Moody’s Analytics.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will close 259 domestic offices, labs and other facilities as part of an effort to save $150 million per year. While the closures and other cost-cutting steps will affect operations at USDA headquarters in Washington and in 46 states, the savings will be relatively small in the context of the agency’s $145 billion budget.

Despite record low mortgage rates and rising affordability in most U.S. housing markets, rent is the new reality for former home owners and new households alike. For some it is post-traumatic stress from the housing crash, for others it is the inability to get financing to buy a home. Either way, the rental market continues on its tear. In the last quarter of 2011, the apartment sector saw its largest quarterly increase in occupation rates. The vacancy rate dropped to 5.2%, the lowest since 2001.

Two assailants on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the car of an Iranian university professor working at a key nuclear facility, killing him and another person Wednesday, state TV reported. The slayings suggest a widening covert effort to set back Iran’s atomic program. The attack in Tehran bore a strong resemblance to earlier killings of scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program. It is certain to amplify authorities’ claims of clandestine operations by Western powers and their allies to halt Iran’s nuclear advances. Tehran has accused Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and Britain’s spy agency of engaging in an underground “terrorism” campaign against nuclear-related targets, including at least three slayings since early 2010 and the release of a malicious computer virus known at Stuxnet in 2010 that temporarily disrupted controls of some centrifuges — a key component in nuclear fuel production. All three countries have denied the Iranian accusations. Israeli officials have hinted about covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.

  • Sources in Israel say that Mossad indeed is responsible as well as for the recent bombings of Iranian munitions camps

Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to respond to threats against him with an “iron hand” and re-fused to step down, insisting he still has his people’s support despite the 10-month-old uprising against him. In his fourth speech since the revolt began in March, Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are behind the unrest — not true reform-seekers. “Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” Assad said. Assad also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Assad agreed to on Dec. 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism. “The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests,” Assad said. “We shouldn’t be surprised it’s failed today.” U.S., Russian, French and British air and naval forces streamed to the Syrian and Iranian coasts over the weekend on guard for fresh developments at the two Middle East flashpoints.

Nearly one year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are concluding their first free and fair elections in decades in what analysts say is a good sign for a country wracked by poverty, injustice and at risk for religious extremism. The third stage of the voting for the 498 seats of the lower house of parliament will end Wednesday with some run-off votes. The elections were dominated by Islamist parties long banned in Egypt and whose agendas are murky. Their newfound power will give them significant influence over the devising of a constitution in which the rights of women, religious minorities and the role of Islamic law will be enshrined.

Two car bombs exploded Monday evening in the Iraqi capital and killed at least 16 people, authorities said. At least one appeared to target Shiite pilgrims, sinking the country deeper into a new wave of sectarian violence. The second car bomb struck near a police vehicle in the Shiite neighborhood of al-Shaab, killing three police-men and four other people. The attacks were the latest in a wave of violence primarily targeting Shiites that has killed more than 90 people in less than a week. Iraq’s Sunni minority dominated the government under the dicta-torship of Saddam Hussein, but since he was overthrown, Shiites have controlled government.

Pakistan’s military warned Wednesday of “grievous consequences” for the country after the prime minister accused the army chief of violating the constitution, adding to a sense of crisis that some believe could end in the ouster of government. The government dismissed the defense secretary, a retired general seen as an army representative within the civilian government, another ominous sign of near-open conflict in a nation that has seen repeated military coups in its six-decade history. Tensions between the army and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari have soared since a scandal involving a memo sent to Washington asking for its help in reining in the army broke late last year. The memo outraged the army.
A bomb targeting a militia opposed to the Pakistani Taliban exploded in a market close to the Afghan border Tuesday, killing 25 people in the deadliest blast in the country in several months. It also wounded 24 people. The explosion, likely detonated by remote control, hit vehicles being used by the militia in the Khyber region. The army has supported the formation of anti-Taliban militias in northwest Pakistan, but the insurgents have ruthlessly attacked the groups over the last two years.

Taliban insurgents stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, setting off a firefight that killed 10 people, the Interior Ministry said, the latest sign of insurgent strength after a decade of war. A statement said three attackers broke into a communications building in Sharan, the provincial capital, about 100 miles south of Kabul. In the ensuing firefight two of the attackers set off their suicide bomb vests. In addition to the three attackers, three policemen and four employees of the Telecommunications Ministry were killed in the attack. Two officers and a civilian were injured. Paktika province borders Pakistan and is one of the main routes for Taliban fighters infiltrating into eastern Afghanistan from their sanctuaries across the border. It is also one of the main strongholds of the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, which has been blamed for a series of spectacular attacks, including suicide bombings inside Kabul.

Thick black smoke and flames rose Tuesday from the burning roadblock that cut off a highway linking Nigeria’s mainland to the islands where the oil-rich nation’s wealthy live. The bare-chested young men who live under the bridge said they had had enough. As the paralyzing nationwide strike called by labor unions Nigeria entered its second day Tuesday, protests by those angered by government corruption and inaction drew tens of thousands to the streets and remain largely peaceful. However, worrying signs of possible unrest have begun emerging in a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people often violently divided by those who have and those who have not.

In Benin City in Nigeria’s southwest, an angry mob killed five people and wounded at least six others Tuesday afternoon as they attacked the city’s central mosque and a Quranic school. Authorities have tried to control violence in Nigeria, a nation divided into a mostly Christian south and Muslim north. However, a radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram has begun specifically killing Christians in the nation’s northeast, leading to a call by a prominent Christian leader for worshipers to begin defending themselves. The Benin City attack appeared to be a response to those killings.

A powerful earthquake hit waters off western Indonesia early Wednesday, prompting officials to briefly issue a tsunami warning. Panicked residents poured into the streets, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or serious damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the 7.3-magnitude quake struck 260 miles off the coast of Aceh province just after midnight. It was centered 18 miles beneath the ocean floor. People in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh — still deeply traumatized by the 2004 monster quake and tsunami — were rattled from their sleep. They fled their homes and waited outside as sirens blared from local mosques, some hopping in cars and motorcycles and heading for high ground. In the town of Seumele, patients were evacuated from a a hospital.

City roads were flooded and thousands of Houston residents, including at least five schools, were without electricity Monday after powerful thunderstorms ploughed through the area prompting a tornado warning and dumping several inches of rain and hail on the drought-stricken region. Up to four inches of rain had fallen on parts of Houston and neighboring areas by early Monday, with more expected. The rain comes as a welcome respite after months of severe drought, but meteorologists said even this wet event would not be enough to fill lakes, reservoirs, creeks and streams. According to preliminary data, Texas got about 14.89 inches of rain in 2011, compared to a normal average of 29.39 inches – levels that compare to 1917 and 1956, some of the driest years in recorded history.

  • The state’s devastating drought has made food and water scarce, raising worries that the parched conditions could threaten the only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes left in the wild. The lack of rain has made estuaries and marshlands too salty for blue crabs to thrive and destroyed a usually plentiful supply of wolf berries. In addition, a long-lasting “red tide” — a toxic algae that blooms in salty water — has made it dangerous for the birds to eat clams, which retain the algae’s toxin and can pass it along the food chain.

A mudslide caused by two days of downpours has killed at least 13 people in a small town in southeastern Brazil, and another 11 are listed as missing. Mud loosened by the rains swallowed at least nine houses built on the hillside. Floods elsewhere in the state have forced more than 30,000 people to flee their homes.

Meanwhile, a severe drought in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul led the governor, Beto Grill, to declare a state of emergency Monday. The federal Ministry of Agriculture announced it has allotted $9.7 million to build dams and wells among other public works designed to improve the situation.

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