Signs of the Times (2/25/12)

State Can’t Make Pharmacies Sell Plan B

Washington state cannot force pharmacies to sell Plan B or other emergency contraceptives, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, saying the state’s true goal was to suppress religious objections by druggists — not to promote timely access to the medicines for people who need them. The state requires pharmacies to dispense any medication for which there is a community need and to stock a representative assortment of drugs needed by their patients. Two licensed Washington pharmacists sued in 2007, saying that dispensing Plan B would infringe on their religious beliefs because it can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, an act they equate with taking human life.

7 States Sue over Obama’s Birth Control Mandate

Seven states asked a federal judge Thursday to block an Obama administration mandate that requires birth control coverage for employees of religious-affiliated hospitals, schools and outreach programs. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Nebraska, alleges that the new rule violates the First Amendment rights of groups that object to the use of contraceptives. It marks the first legal challenge filed by states. The rule, announced as part of the federal health care law, has come under fire from religious groups that object to the use of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. In response to the criticism, Obama administration officials have said they will shift the requirement from the employers to health insurers themselves.

Virginia Scraps Invasive Pre-Abortion Procedure

A Virginia bill that would have required women to undergo an invasive ultrasound before having an abortion failed Wednesday after Gov. Bob McDonnell withdrew his support. McDonnell, a Republican who opposes abortion and is mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, came out against the measure. Requiring women to have an ultrasound in which a wand is inserted into the vagina “is not a proper role for the state,” McDonnell said. “No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.”

Iranian Court Gives Death Penalty to Pastor

Ignoring an avalanche of international approbation, an Iranian court sentenced Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani to hang till dead for the crime of questioning the compulsory Islamic education of his children and for seeking to register a home-based church. “It is unclear whether Pastor Youcef would have a right of appeal from the execution order,” said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the Washington-based American Center for Law & Justice. “We know that the head of Iran’s Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, must approve publicly held executions, but only a small percentage of executions are held in public – most executions in Iran are conducted in secret.”

‘Occupy’ to Hold National Conference in Philly

A group of protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement plans to elect 876 “delegates” from around the country and hold a national “general assembly” in Philadelphia over the Fourth of July as part of ongoing protests over corporate excess and economic inequality. The group, dubbed the 99% Declaration Working Group, said Wednesday delegates would be selected during a secure online election in early June from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Any U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who is 18 years of age or older may run as a nonpartisan candidate for delegate.

More Kids Getting Sex-Change Treatments

According to a new study in the medical journal Pediatrics, sex-change treatments for teens and young children are on the rise at clinics in the United States, although still a small number, CBN News reports. The treatments, which include taking drugs to stop puberty, often start around age 11. Dr. Norman Spack, who wrote the report, said pediatricians “need to know there are children who think they were born the wrong sex.” Spack is the director of one of America’s first gender identity medical clinics at Children’s Hospital Boston, which averages about 19 sex-change procedures on kids every year.

  • A sad commentary on parents who go along with such atrocities

Federal Government Fails Audit

Failing an audit can result in major ramifications, both economic and legal, for a public corporation. And yet, the federal government – by its own admission – has failed to account for some $2 trillion of taxpayers’ dollars over the past decade, say watchdog agencies who point out that the total could be much higher. No one knows for sure because some agencies’ books are impenetrable. Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton calls the accounting lapse “a scandal of the highest order… If they were running a public company, the CEO and the entire board would be out on their ear.” The problems are worst in the Department of Defense, which has severe financial management problems according to the Government Accountability Office.

  • The federal government is so poorly run and waste so rampant that they are the problem, not the solution.

1.4 Million U.S. Families Live on $2 a Day per Person

The number of families living on $2 or less per person per day for at least a month in the USA has more than doubled in 15 years to 1.46 million. That’s up from 636,000 households in 1996, says a new study released by researchers at the University of Michigan and Harvard University. Government benefits blunt the impact of such extreme poverty, but not completely, says the report. When food stamps are included as income, the number of households in extreme poverty, defined as living on $2 a day, drops to 800,000. That’s up from 475,000 in 1996. “This seems to be a group that has fallen through the cracks,” says Kathryn Edin, a Harvard researcher and professor of public policy.

Obama’s Tax Plan Triples Dividend Rate

Hidden in the details of Obama’s new tax bill, next year the dividend tax rate would increase to the higher personal income tax rate of 39.6%. Including the phasing out of certain deductions and exemptions, the rate is 41%. Finally, if you add the 3.8% investment tax surcharge in ObamaCare, the 2013 dividend tax rate would be 44.8% – nearly triple today’s 15% rate. But dividends are paid after the corporation pays taxes on its profits. If you assume a maximum 35% corporate tax rate and a 44.8% dividend tax, the total tax on earnings paid as dividends would be 64.1%.

America’s Per Capita Government Debt Worse Than Greece

The office of Senator Jeff Sessions, ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, released data showing that America’s per capita government debt is worse Than Greece, as well as Ireland, Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain. The U.S. debt load averages $44,215 for every single person, including children. That’s $156,860 for a household of four. Greece, with all its economic miseries, is only at $38,937 per person, with Italy averaging $40,475. Other EU countries experiencing economic difficulties are much lower: Spain’s per capita debt is just $18,395 with Portugal at $19,989.

  • Foreign lenders have kept the USA afloat (including China and OPEC nations), but can just as easily sink our ship of state

Economic News

The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid was unchanged last week, and the four-week average of applications fell to its lowest point in four years. Applications stayed last week at a seasonally adjusted 351,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the fewest since March 2008, when the country was just a few months into the recession. When applications drop consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.

The Commerce Department said Friday that new-home sales fell 0.9% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 321,000 homes. That followed four straight months of gains in which home sales rose 10%. Only 304,000 new homes were sold in 2011 — fewest on records dating back to 1963, and well below the 700,000-per-year rate that economists equate with a healthy real estate market.

Sales of existing homes increased 4.3% in January from December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.57 million. While still weak, that was the highest level in 20 months, the third gain in four months and a 0.7% increase over January 2011. As demand tightens, prices typically rise. But not this time, as foreclosed homes coming to market are keeping prices down.

The spike in crud oil prices, now at nine-month highs, has driven regular gas to a record February high of $3.65 a gallon — up 42 cents over a year ago. Motorists along both coasts are paying more: an average $4.20 in California and $3.91 a gallon in New York.

The USA is at a critical juncture in how it pays for roads, bridges and transit. That’s because the federal tax on gasoline, the primary method since 1956, has lost one-third of its buying power since it was last raised in 1993. The federal gas tax — 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline, 24.4 cents for diesel —accounts for about 45%-50% of capital spending for transportation. However, it is growing anemic because of inflation, more fuel-efficient vehicles, Americans driving fewer miles and the growth of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles.

Middle East

The UN and several nations, including the US, joined in condemning Israel on Wednesday over plans to retroactively legalize the previously unauthorized settlement of Shvut Rachel and authorize the construction of 180 new homes in Shiloh. “We don’t believe [settlement activity is] in any way constructive to getting both sides back to the negotiating table,” US State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. “We want to see, clearly, a comprehensive settlement that delineates borders and resolves many of these issues.” UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process Robert Serry issued a similar statement.

Israel’s Interior Ministry announced this week that a 5,000 square meter tourist complex in Silwan, the neighborhood directly south of Jerusalem’s Old City predominantly populated by Arabs, will be built. The park, with a Biblical theme highlighting the archeological evidence that the area was the site of the city King David built, is part of a proposed project called the ‘King’s Garden.’ The move is likely to cause further tensions in Jerusalem as Arab residents refuse to move out of their homes to make way for the construction despite promises of compensation, and Muslim groups in the city and regional governments accuse Israel of attempting to “Judaize Jerusalem.”

Iran

Iran has rapidly ramped up production of higher-grade enriched uranium over the last few months, the U.N. nuclear agency said Friday, in a confidential report that feeds concerns about how quickly the Islamic republic could produce an atomic bomb. The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency also said Iran had failed to give a convincing explanation about a quantity of missing uranium metal. Diplomats say the amount unaccounted for is large enough to be used for experiments in arming a nuclear missile. The agency continues to have “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program.”

Sources in Iran have reported that an execution order for Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been issued. Pastor Youcef has been illegally imprisoned and separated from his wife and two boys since 2009; and each time the Iranian regime has demanded that he recant his Christian faith, he has responded, “I cannot.” Now, this Christian Pastor’s life literally hangs in the balance. Congress is taking action, considering a resolution condemning Iran’s human rights violations and calling for Pastor Youcef’s release.

Iraq

A rapid series of attacks spread over a wide swath of Iraqi territory killed at least 50 people on Thursday, targeting mostly security forces in what appeared to be another strike by al-Qaeda militants bent on destabilizing the country. The apparently coordinated bombings and shootings unfolded over four hours in the capital Baghdad — where most of the deaths were — and 11 other cities. They struck government offices, restaurants and one in the town of Musayyib hit close to a primary school. At least 225 people were wounded. It was the latest of a series of large-scale attacks that insurgents have launched every few weeks since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-December at the end of a nearly 10-year war.

Afghanistan

Thousands of Afghan protesters are out on the streets in two eastern provinces in new rallies over the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. At least 25  people were killed and dozens wounded in protests Friday, mostly in Herat province. Apologies by President Obama and Afghan and U.S. officials have failed so far to quiet the Afghan people’s outrage over the incident. The U.S.-led military coalition says the Qurans and other Islamic texts were sent to a burn pit by mistake. Afghan police in Khost, the provincial capital of Khost province, say an estimated 4,000 protesters are marching toward the governor’s compound. And in the eastern part of Nangarhar province, thousands are shouting “Death to America!” and burning a cardboard picture of Obama.

At least two American officers were killed inside the interior ministry in Kabul. Initial reports indicated that “an individual” turned his weapon against NATO service members. The gunman was likely an outsider who had infiltrated the ministry. It was uncertain whether the attack was connected to the recent violence across the country over the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base.

Pakistan

Suicide bombers armed with assault rifles and grenades attacked a large police station in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar early Friday, killing four officers in an assault authorities said was likely in revenge for offensives against nearby strongholds. The attack was the latest in a spasm of violence in or close to Peshawar, showing that local militants retain the capacity to strike. The army has claimed success in its fight against militants behind five years of violence in the country, but the insurgents have proved resilient.

Syria

The Red Cross negotiated with Syrian authorities and opposition members Saturday for daily breaks in fighting so wounded people can be evacuated from the besieged city of Homs, an agency spokesman said. The calls for a cessation of violence come amid increasingly dire reports in Homs from the opposition and humanitarian organizations, who describe a lack of medical supplies, food and water shortages and an increasing body count. At least 17 of the 36 people killed across Syria on Saturday died in Homs. It is unclear how quickly massive humanitarian aid efforts proposed at the Friends of Syria meeting Friday can begin to make its way into Syria. The Friends of Syria group consists of dozens of nations, including the United States and members of the European Union and the Arab League. It formed to deal with the Syrian crisis after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution this month addressing the Syrian crisis.

Yemen

Yemen’s new president Abed Rabo Mansour Hadi took the oath of office before the country’s parliament Saturday. He replaces Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years before leaving office in a power transfer deal aimed at ending over a year of political turmoil. Hadi, who was Saleh’s vice president, was formally inaugurated following a single-candidate presidential election earlier in the week. Hadi swore to keep up Yemen’s fight against al-Qaeda-linked militants, who took advantage of the country’s upheaval to seize control of several parts of the country.

Somalia

World leaders pledged new help to tackle terrorism and piracy in Somalia, but insisted Thursday that the troubled East African nation must quickly form a stable government and threatened penalties against those who hamper its progress. Nations pledged new funding, additional training for soldiers and coast guards, increased cooperation over terrorism and a new drive to root out those who finance and profit from piracy, after the shipping industry paid out $135 million in ransoms last year. For two decades Somalia has been torn apart by famine, bloodshed and some of the worst poverty on earth. British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that Somalia’s al-Qaeda linked militant group al-Shabab could export terrorism to Europe and the United States, with dozens of British and American citizens traveling to Somalia to train and fight with the Islamists.

Weather

Chilly temperatures on this final weekend of February will put a temporary end to the recent stretch of springlike weather across much of the country. After several days of mild weather, much of the eastern half of the nation will get a rude reminder that February is still here. The South will also be cool. Snow is likely Saturday in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies. The heaviest snow should fall in the Cascades of Washington and Oregon, where up to two feet is possible. Drenching rain is expected along the Northwest Coast Saturday, where Seattle and Portland will have a very wet day. Sunday, snow will continue in the northern Rockies and in the northern Plains. The snow will be accompanied by strong winds and bitterly cold temperatures, especially in the Dakotas.

A winter weather storm closed major highways, knocked out power to thousands of customers and raised avalanche dangers across Colorado on Thursday. The Colorado Department of Transportation said parts of Interstate 25 that runs north and south near of Denver were closed, along with portions of Interstate 70 west of the Front Range following a slew of traffic accidents that kept authorities and snowplows busy. More than 500 power outages affected about 18,000 customers, most in the Denver area.

One of the USA’s warmest winters in years could lead to a bug bonanza over the next few weeks, with insects like beetles, ants, termites and wasps all coming out much earlier than average. Even things like mosquitoes might come out earlier than usual. In some places, the onslaught has already begun: “We’re seeing insects out there that we don’t usually see this time of year,” says Missy Henriksen of the National Pest Management Association. Several states have even reported early tick sightings. Many insects hibernate during the cold winter months, but they are emerging from their hiding places much earlier.than typical.

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