Signs of the Times (8/3/12)

U.S. Appeals Court Blocks Arizona’s Abortion Ban

A federal appeals court on Wednesday temporarily prohibited Arizona from enforcing its new ban on most abortions starting at 20 weeks of pregnancy. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its order two days after a trial judge ruled that the ban could take effect Thursday as scheduled. The appellate court put the ban on hold until a pending appeal is decided, which will take at least several months. It said in a brief order that it will hold a hearing as soon as possible this fall after receiving legal briefs due in September and October. The case centers on whether the ban violates U.S. Supreme Court rulings that states cannot prohibit abortion before a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. That’s generally considered to be about 24 weeks.

Chick-fil-A Supporters Line Up for Appreciation Day

People across the country flocked to Chick-fil-A Wednesday in support of remarks by the restaurant’s CEO backing traditional marriage, ABC News reports. Many of the chain’s stores reported record crowds, and the local outlet in Augusta, Ga., ran out of food and had to close early. At one Atlanta location, the line for the drive-thru looped twice around the building and out onto the street, and in Crystal City, Va., a steady line went down the block for three hours. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy appeared at a Fayetteville, N.C., location to thank customers for eating there. More than 630,000 supporters had signed up to celebrate Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, which former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee created to counter a boycott launched by gay-rights activists after Cathy said his company supported the biblical definition of marriage.

LGBT Group Files Human-Rights Complaint Against Chick-fil-A

The Civil Rights Agenda, a local LGBT rights advocacy group, filed multiple complaints with the Illinois Department of Human Rights Thursday, alleging that the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A restaurant chain’s “intolerant corporate culture” violates Illinois law and a provision in the state’s Human Rights Act. “They have made it clear the lives of LGBT individuals are unacceptable to them and that same-gender families are unwelcome at Chick-fil-A,” said Jacob Meister, Governing Board President of TCRA and the attorney who filed the complaint.

  • A ‘kiss-in’ scheduled for today (Friday) is expected to garner more coverage by the liberal media despite far fewer numbers than showed up Wednesday in support of Chick-fil-A and traditional marriage

Governments Attacking Religious Freedom in Nearly Half the World’s Countries

Attacks on Christians are rising in Arab Spring countries, anti-Semitism is growing around the globe, and people worldwide are paying with their lives for their religious beliefs, according to the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report, released this week at the State Department, CNSNews.com reports. “[In] nearly half of the world’s countries, governments either abuse religious minorities or did not intervene in cases of societal abuse,” said Suzan Johnson Cook, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. In all eight countries named last August as “countries of particular concern” — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — religious freedom deteriorated during the last year, according to the report. In North Korea, “genuine religious freedom does not exist,” Cook said, while religious freedom in Iran “has deteriorated from an already horrible situation.” Other countries, especially in the Muslim world, are “increasingly using blasphemy and apostasy and dissent laws to curb religious freedom,” she said.

  • Most such attacks are committed by Islamists against Judeo-Christian supporters as well as against other Muslim sects

Global ‘Weirdness’ in Summer’s Extreme Weather Events

A plague of extreme weather events, from Greenland briefly thawing to the derecho thunderstorms that knocked out power for millions across the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest has struck this summer. Above all, an exceptional drought has marked roughly 50% of all U.S. counties nationwide as federal disaster areas. That’s on top of last year, which saw record U.S. tornadoes, floods and a drought that tortured Texas and Oklahoma, leading some scientists to call it global weirdness. Greenland holds enough ice that if it melted instantly — which no one is predicting — sea levels worldwide would rise about 20 feet, explaining the interest in its weather. In reality, such surface thaws have happened before: A melt in 1889, judging by ice cores, and much of the four-day melt this summer refroze once the heat wave passed.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more ‘weird’ and extreme regardless of the causes

Immigrants Are Big Business for Prison Companies

The U.S. is locking up more illegal immigrants than ever, generating lucrative profits for the nation’s largest prison companies, and an Associated Press review shows the businesses have spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and contributing to campaigns. The cost to American taxpayers is on track to top $2 billion for this year, and the companies are expecting their biggest cut of that yet in the next few years thanks to government plans for new facilities to house the 400,000 immigrants detained annually. After a decade of expansion, the sprawling, private system runs detention centers everywhere from a Denver suburb to an industrial area flanking Newark’s airport, and is largely controlled by just three companies. In 2011, nearly half the beds in the nation’s civil detention system were in private facilities with little federal oversight, up from just 10 percent a decade ago. The financial boom, which has helped save some of these companies from the brink of bankruptcy, has occurred even though federal officials acknowledge privatization isn’t necessarily cheaper.

  • With illegal immigrants courted as voters and locked up for profit, there’s little hope for any real immigration reform anytime soon

Number of U.S. Farmers Markets Surges

As demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has increased, so too has the number of urban farmers markets sprouting up across the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that the number of direct-sales markets has increased 9.6% in the past year, with California and New York leading the way. After 18 years of steady increases, the number of farmers markets across the country now registered with the USDA is 7,864. In 1994, there were 1,744. Today, some markets are so popular that there are wait lists for farmers to sell there.

Tax-Delinquent Providers Get $6.6B in Medicaid Funds

Despite owing at least $791 million in federal taxes, about 7,000 Medicaid providers in Florida, New York, and Texas received $6.6 billion in reimbursements during 2009, the Government Accountability Office says in a report released Friday. Because Medicaid payments to doctors, hospitals and other providers are channeled through state health programs, they are not considered “federal” funds. As a result, the Internal Revenue Service says, it cannot collect the unpaid taxes. The report says the amount of unpaid federal taxes “is likely understated” because IRS data reflect “only the amount of unpaid taxes either reported on a tax return or assessed by IRS through enforcement; it does not include entities that did not file tax returns or underreported their income.”

  • With a behemoth federal bureaucracy comes greater inefficiency, not less

House Votes to Extend Tax Cuts for All Through 2013

The U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend tax cuts through 2013 for all income levels, defying a veto threat from President Barack Obama. The 256-171 vote, mostly along party lines, continues a stalemate on tax policy that lawmakers say will last beyond the Nov. 6 election. Nineteen Democrats voted for the Republican bill, and one Republican was opposed. The measure won’t advance in the Democratic-led Senate. Obama and congressional Democrats want to let the tax cuts expire for top earners, and each side is accusing the other of holding the country hostage to get its way.

Economic News

The nation’s unemployment rate ticked up from 8.2% to 8.3% as the economy added just 163,000 jobs in July. Overall, private employers added 172,000 jobs in July while governments cut 9,000, the Labor Department reported. The number of unemployed was 12.8 million in July and the number of long-term unemployed was 5.2 million. The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits rose last week. Weekly applications increased 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 365,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

About 1 million long-term unemployed Americans are seeing their jobless benefits phasing out this year as the federal government reels in Great Recession lifelines that provided unemployment checks for as long as 99 weeks in many states. By year’s end, another 2 million will see their checks cut off sooner because extended unemployment benefits will end beyond the standard 26 weeks that states pay for. Congress could renew the program, but many economists say that’s unlikely.

After dipping to $3.33 a gallon and flirting with $3 in the South, the nation’s average gas price climbed 17 cents over 26 consecutive days in July. It was the first monthly gain since March and the biggest July jump since at least 2000, AAA said Tuesday. Nationally, regular gasoline averaged $3.50 a gallon Wednesday, although it’s pricier in 25 states.

War on Terror

Western strikes on Al Qaeda have shown progress in taking out the terror group’s core in Pakistan, but affiliates still are increasing “operational capabilities,” the State Department said in releasing its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. The report also notes the threat from other terror groups, including the Lebanese-based Hezbollah, which is engaging in their most active and aggressive campaigns since the 1990s. The report counted more than 10,000 terrorists attacks in 70 countries in 2011, which resulted in more than 12,500 deaths, though that measurement is down from 2010. The worst regions for terrorist attacks are South Asia and the Near East, and most of the victims are Muslim. Sixty-four percent of all attacks worldwide occurred in just three countries, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan

Middle East

In a speech published on his website Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the ultimate goal of world forces must be the annihilation of Israel. Speaking to ambassadors from Islamic countries ahead of ‘Qods Day’ (‘Jerusalem Day’), an annual Iranian anti-Zionist event established in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini and which falls this year on August 17, Ahmadinejad said that a “horrible Zionist current” had been managing world affairs for “about 400 years.” Repeating traditional anti-Semitic slurs, the Iranian president accused “Zionists” of controlling the world’s media and financial systems.

  • Like Hitler, Ahmadinejad knows if you repeat a lie often enough, eventually a majority of the people will believe it

Egypt

Egypt’s new prime minister and his Cabinet were sworn in on Thursday, the first government since the election of a Muslim Brotherhood leader as the country’s first freely elected president. The Cabinet seemed designed to avoid any appearance of Brotherhood domination, including several members of the out-going, military-picked government and mainly technocratic figures. Still, Brotherhood members took four ministries. It also retains in his post Hosni Mubarak’s defense minister of 20 years, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, a reflection of how the military, which Tantawi heads, still holds overwhelming powers in the country. The new government is the first since the June 30 inauguration of President Mohammed Morsi, a longtime Muslim Brotherhood leader. It comes at a time when tensions are mounting over the country’s recent sectarian violence and growing popular discontent over issues such as widespread power and water outages as well as shortages.

Syria

Mortars rained down on a crowded marketplace in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, killing 21 people as regime forces and rebels clashed on the southern outskirts of Damascus. The Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights said the mortars hit as shoppers were buying food for the evening meal. Clashes continued on Friday and sounds of explosions from the neighborhood could be heard as far as the mostly deserted Damascus downtown, with plumes of smoke seen rising into the sky. Violence worsened across Syria on Friday as defiant demonstrators took to the streets. An all-out battle is expected in Aleppo, the nation’s most populous city. For days, it has been engulfed in fighting between regime forces and rebels.

Iraq

A double bombing struck at an upscale neighborhood Iraq’s capital Tuesday, killing at least 21 as the government strained to control al-Qaida-based chaos gripping the country. The bloody explosions came on the same day that Iraq’s government discussed security issues with Iran, a measure of Tehran’s growing influence. The violence brought the July death toll to 245 people killed in shootings and bombings.

Afghanistan

Terrorists will stop at nothing to keep Afghan girls from receiving an education. There were at least 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan last year, according to the United Nations. The majority were attributed to armed groups opposed to girls’ education. “It is heartbreaking to see the way these terrorists treat … women,” said Razia Jan, founder of a girls’ school outside Kabul.. “In their eyes, a woman is an object that they can control. They are scared that when these girls get an education, they will become aware of their rights as women and as a human being.”

Wildfires

A once-thriving Colorado neighborhood of homes and healthy trees has been reduced to a barren expanse of ash and debris. Across the state, a river prized for its trout, rapids and pristine water instead flows as an oily, black brew every time rain falls on nearby slopes charred by wildfire. In New Mexico, the Santa Clara Pueblo is seeking volunteers to fill sandbags for fear the American Indian village of 3,100 will be washed away by runoff from mountainsides left denuded by a blaze last year. Wildfires across the West are burning homes, businesses, bridges and other infrastructure necessary for everyday life — and the disaster isn’t over when the wildfire is snuffed out and the firefighters go home. Erosion from seared hillsides buries roads in mud and pollutes rivers that supply tap water. The point was driven home earlier this week when a mudslide following heavy rain in Colorado’s Waldo Canyon burn area temporarily closed U.S. 24 near Manitou Springs. Experts say recovery can take years and untold millions of dollars simply to make conditions livable again.

Weather

Drought and scorching heat are warming lakes, streams and rivers in the Midwest and Plains to temperatures seldom seen before. In Chicago, Lake Michigan hit 82 degrees in late July. The water temperature of the Mississippi River at Moline measured 91 degrees, the highest since records began in 1943. Customers complained to the water department in Moline that the “cold” water is coming out warm now. Fish kills because of the warm water have been reported in Michigan, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota.

Some farmers are selling off their livestock herds because they can’t afford to buy feed, marking a new level of fallout from the drought that will affect consumers and possibly the entire U.S. economy. The cost of meat at the grocery likely will drop as farmers liquidate cattle and pigs in the next few weeks, but higher prices and even shortages could follow. Small meatpacking plants might be forced to reduce shifts or lay off workers just as consumers tighten their budgets after a summer of high air-conditioning bills.

Although the withering drought and relentless heat wave made weather headlines throughout July, there was some good news last month: July 2012 was one of the quietest Julys for tornadoes on record in the U.S. Only 24 preliminary reports of tornadoes were filed in July. An average July has 98 tornadoes. There were also no named tropical storms or hurricanes in the Atlantic.

Nearly a year after the remnants of Hurricane Irene unleashed devastating floods in much of Vermont, a new report by an environmental group says extreme downpours and snowfalls are the new normal — up 85 percent in New England since 1948. Nationally, Environment America’s report found that storms with extreme precipitation increased in frequency by 30 percent across the contiguous United States from 1948 to 2011. It said the largest annual storms produced 10 percent more precipitation, on average. It said New England was the region where the trend was most pronounced. Intense storms more than doubled in New Hampshire during the period studied.

Torrential rains from an approaching typhoon battered eastern Taiwan on Wednesday after killing at least 14 people and displacing 154,000 in the Philippines. Parts of northeastern Taiwan already reported rainfall of close to 30 inches by Wednesday afternoon, while the bureau said about one-third of that amount had fallen in suburban Taipei. It could dump more than 59 inches of rain in northern Taiwan before moving west toward the Chinese coast late Thursday.

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