Signs of the Times (11/26/12)

‘Games’ Keeping Obamacare Out of Court

A lower court has dismissed lawsuits filed by two Christian schools — Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College — which object to the mandate that health insurance exchanges under ObamaCare provide free coverage of contraceptives, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization. Attorney Lori Windham of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty tells OneNewsNow the reason for the ruling is because the HHS has rewritten its “safe harbor” guidelines, giving the schools another year to comply. “What happened is the federal government has been playing some games here,” says Windham. “They put a safe harbor in place, and then they’ve changed that safe harbor several times. Every time somebody files a new lawsuit that might actually get this mandate into court to decide whether it’s a religious freedom violation, they start changing the safe harbor to keep them out of court.” Implementation of the mandate is January 1. So, Windham says religious institutions, which face huge penalties, need an answer now.

Supreme Court Allows ‘Christian Worldview’ Course to Stand

Because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, high school students in a South Carolina public school district can continue taking off-campus religion courses for school credit. The Freedom From Religion Foundation argues that the district is endorsing religion. But the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals already upheld a lower court decision in favor of the Spartanburg County School District’s program that gives students credit for taking a “Christian Worldview” class at a neighboring religious school. Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council, an organization that aims to “persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family,” says this is good news for Spartanburg High students. “They’re teaching the Bible as Scripture, as the Word of God. So, to receive high school credit for that is something that’s, I think, significant,” he contends.

Courts Divided Over Searches of Cellphones

Judges and lawmakers across the country are wrangling over whether and when law enforcement authorities can peer into suspects’ cellphones, and the cornucopia of evidence they provide. A Rhode Island judge threw out cellphone evidence that led to a man being charged with the murder of a 6-year-old boy, saying the police needed a search warrant. A court in Washington compared text messages to voice mail messages that can be overheard by anyone in a room and are therefore not protected by state privacy laws. In Louisiana, a federal appeals court is weighing whether location records stored in smartphones deserve privacy protection, or whether they are “business records” that belong to the phone companies. The issue will attract attention on Thursday when a Senate committee considers limited changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that regulates how the government can monitor digital communications. Courts have used it to permit warrantless surveillance of certain kinds of cellphone data.

  • Individual privacy will continue to erode as technology advances and governments seek greater control

U.N. Climate Talks Open in Qatar

U.N. talks on a new climate pact resumed Monday in oil and gas-rich Qatar, where negotiators from nearly 200 countries will discuss fighting global warming and helping poor nations adapt to it. The two-decade-old talks have not fulfilled their main purpose: reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming the planet. Attempts to create a new climate treaty failed in Copenhagen three years ago but countries agreed last year to try again, giving themselves a deadline of 2015 to adopt a new treaty.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme regardless of whether greenhouse gas emissions are cut or not

Congressional Republicans Break Tax Pledge

More congressional Republicans are breaking a long-standing pledge to oppose tax increases before returning to Washington on Monday to avert a looming fiscal crisis with a deal that increasingly appears impossible to reach without changes to the tax code. The decades-old pledge from the Americans for Tax Reform group has been signed by 238 House members and 41 senators in this Congress and has essentially become inescapable for any Republican seeking statewide or national office over recent election cycles, especially in the Republican-controlled lower chamber. But several Republicans  said Sunday they would break the pledge and accept tax changes to generate more revenue to curb the trillion-dollar federal deficit. New York Rep. Peter King said, “The world has changed, and the economic situation is different.”

  • Compromises to avoid the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ on Jan. 1st will only forestall – and worsen – the economic collapse to come

‘GivingTuesday’ Aims to Boost Charitable Donations

In the days following Thanksgiving, there’s already Black Friday and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday to kick off the holiday shopping season. Now, a group of charities and corporate sponsors is urging Americans to make the Tuesday after Thanksgiving just as powerful a day of giving to those in need. It’s called GivingTuesday, and organizers say it’s gaining momentum as the holiday shopping season approaches. There are 800 partners, from non-profits to corporations, including heavy hitters such as Microsoft and Sony. GivingTuesday is a consumer movement, much like the big post-Thanksgiving shopping days, and organizers say it’s up to people to make it a success. The goal is to drive donations of time, money or services to charities with the same enthusiasm that shoppers have on Black Friday.

Economic News

The biggest holiday shopping weekend of the season still has one day left, but retailers can already consider it their best yet. More shoppers came out Thanksgiving night, more shoppers hit stores on Black Friday, more shopped online and everyone spent more. The result: more than $59 billion in estimated sales from Thursday through Sunday. That’s up from $52.4 billion last year. And all signs point to a huge Cyber Monday, as more consumers turned to their computers or mobile devices to shop during the weekend.

  • The god of mammon continues to increase in strength as the USA becomes more and more Godless

Eurozone

One country — Greece — continues in outright depression, having contracted at an annual rate of 7.2 percent in the third quarter. Reuters reports that “Greece’s GDP for the quarter was 20 percent lower in real terms than output in the third quarter of 2008, when the downturn began.” Currently, Greece suffers a general 25 percent unemployment rate, but youth unemployment is a staggering 58 percent. Meanwhile, Spain’s rate of unemployment is a whopping  25.8 percent!

Middle East

A fragile truce between Israel and Hamas appeared to hold Friday despite reports that Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian man near its border in Gaza. Israeli troops fired on Gazans surging toward Israel’s border fence Friday, killing one person but leaving intact the fragile two-day-old cease-fire between Hamas and the Jewish state.

Hamas leaders and thousands of flag-waving supporters declared victory over Israel on Gaza’s first day of calm under an Egyptian-brokered truce Thursday. Eight days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and a barrage of Hamas rocket fire on Israel ended inconclusively. While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza’s Hamas rulers claimed that Israel’s decision not to send in ground troops, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new deterrent power.

The top leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood denounced peace efforts with Israel and urged holy war to liberate Palestinian territories on Thursday — one day after the country’s president, who hails from the movement, mediated a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians to end eight days of fierce fighting. The Brotherhood sometimes delivers conflicting messages, depending on its audience. There are also ideological and generational divisions within the movement, with older leaders often seen as more conservative.

A poll shows about half of Israelis think their government should have continued its military offensive against Palestinian militants in Hamas-ruled Gaza. The independent Maagar Mohot poll released on Friday shows 49% of respondents feel Israel should have kept going after squads who fire rockets into Israel. Thirty-one percent supported the government’s decision to stop. Twenty percent had no opinion. Twenty-nine percent thought Israel should have sent ground troops to invade Gaza.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah group would fire thousands of rockets into Israel in any future war and target cities in the country’s heartland, the group’s leader said Sunday. Hezbollah, like Hamas and other Gaza militant factions, maintains a rocket arsenal and regularly threatens to use it. It fought an inconclusive 34-day war with the Jewish state in 2006 that left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead. Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets at Israel during the 2006 war and is believed to have upgraded its arsenal since then. Nasrallah did not say how many missiles and rockets his group possesses, although in the past he said they have more than 20,000. Israel estimates the number at several times that.

Iran & Qatar Vie for Hamas Influence

The courtship of Hamas between rivals Iran and Qatar has been one of the Middle East’s intriguing subplots of the Arab Spring. The bloodshed in Gaza has now sharpened their competition for influence with the Palestinian militant group and the direction it takes in the future. Qatar has sought to use its vast wealth to win over Hamas with investments and humanitarian aid and encouraging Arab partners to do the same — part of the hyper-rich U.S. allied nation’s broader campaign to bring under its wing Islamist movements that have risen to power in the region the past two years. Qatar’s influence with Hamas could edge it away from armed action toward diplomacy. Iran, meanwhile, is invigorating its longtime role as the builder of the rocket arsenal for Hamas’ military wing. For Hamas, there are benefits in both directions — and it’s happy to play both sides

Israel

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday abruptly announced he was quitting politics, injecting new turmoil into the Israeli political system weeks ahead of general elections. His resignation could mean the departure of the most moderating influence on hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds a wide lead in polls and is expected to easily win re-election. Barak, who heads a small centrist faction in parliament, often served as Netanyahu’s unofficial envoy to Washington to smooth over differences with the Obama White House. His impending departure comes at a key time for Israel, as the nation struggles to find its way in a region where the old order of Arab autocrats has been swept aside by the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist political parties. Israel also faces a looming decision on whether to attack Iran’s nuclear program, which the Jewish state fears is designed to develop atomic weapons

Egypt

A wave of fresh clashes erupted in Egypt on Sunday as resentment over the president’s new powers and support for him continues to divide the country. The latest clashes broke out between protesters and security forces on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. Opponents of President Mohammed Morsi have set fire to offices of his Muslim Brotherhood in several Egyptian cities, clashing with his supporters after the Islamist leader assumed sweeping new powers. Egypt’s Islamist president unilaterally decreed greater authorities for himself Thursday and effectively neutralized a judicial system that had emerged as a key opponent by declaring that the courts are barred from challenging his decisions. President Morsi will meet Monday with members of Egypt’s highest judicial body in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Riding high on U.S. and international praise for mediating a Gaza cease-fire, Mohammed Morsi put himself above oversight and gave protection to the Islamist-led assembly writing a new constitution from a looming threat of dissolution by court order. The edicts by Morsi have turned months of growing polarization into an open battle between his Muslim Brotherhood and liberals who fear a new dictatorship. Some in the opposition, which has been divided and weakened, were now speaking of a sustained street campaign against the man who nearly five months ago became Egypt’s first freely elected president.

Syria

Activists say Syrian rebels have captured a hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates river in the country’s north in a strategic victory that followed days of fighting. The dam supplies several areas of Syria with electricity. The rebels have been making strategic advances recently. Syria’s conflict started in March 2011 as uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts. It quickly morphed into a civil war that has since killed more than 40,000 people, according to activists.

Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomber detonated a truck full of explosives Friday in eastern Afghanistan, killing three Afghan civilians and wounding more than 90 people, including several Afghan and NATO troops. The early morning explosion in Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak province, also destroyed or damaged several government offices and a local prison. The blast occurred in an area that is home to government offices, the provincial governor’s office, police headquarters, a prison and a coordination center used by international and Afghan security forces.

American and allied military planners are drawing up the broad outlines of a force that would remain in Afghanistan following the handover to Afghan security after 2014, including a small counterterrorism force with an eye toward Al Qaeda, senior officials say. NATO forces would advise Afghan forces at major regional military and police headquarters but most likely have a minimal battlefield role, with the exception of some special operations advisers. Final decisions on the size of the American and NATO presence after 2014 and its precise configuration have not been made by the United States or its allies. But one option calls for about 10,000 American and several thousand non-American NATO troops.

Pakistan

A bombing claimed by the Taliban killed at least five people and wounded some 90 others at a Shiite religious procession in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday. At least 30 have now died in five attacks on Shiites claimed by the Pakistani Taliban over the past five days, while about 100 were wounded in the run up to the holiday, which commemorates the 7th century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. The schism between Sunni and Shiite Muslims dates back to that time.

Thailand

Anti-government protesters calling for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down launched a rally in Bangkok on Saturday that authorities feared would grow into the biggest demonstration the country has seen since she took office last year. The rally drew tens of thousands of protesters and was mostly peaceful in its early stages. Police, however, fired tear gas to disperse between 50 to 100 people who tried to break through a line of concrete barricades erected on a street near the protest site. The demonstration underscores the still-simmering political divisions that have split the country since the army toppled Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 military coup.

Persecution Watch

Millions of Indian Christians are being denied their constitutional rights by the government, which is refusing to give them a place in the country’s hierarchical caste system. The Indian Constitution recognises two groups of historically disadvantaged people, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs); legislation exists to the redress the socio-economic deprivation they have suffered and bolster their rights. But Christian Dalits and tribal Christians are being denied this important status on the grounds of their faith. Two-thirds of India’s 27 million Christians are Dalits, the category of people at the very bottom of Indian society.

A 25-year-old Christian convert from Islam has been beheaded by al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. Farhan Haji Mose was killed in the city of Barawa on Friday (16 November) in front of a crowd that had gathered to watch the execution. The Islamist militants accused Farhan of being a spy for foreigners and of embracing the “foreign religion of Christianity”. The militants, who control most of southern Somalia, have killed dozens of converts from Islam in their ruthless campaign to rid the country of Christianity.

Five members of a Christian family were shot in their home, which was then set ablaze with the victims inside. The attack in Madauchi-Zonkwa, Kaduna state, Northern Nigeria, took place on November 14th. Soldiers stationed nearby failed to intervene, despite gunshots ringing out for almost an hour.

Earthquakes

Chinese says a strong earthquake has damaged buildings in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The magnitude-5.5 quake struck at early Monday afternoon near the town of Ruoqiang in the vast but lightly populated region. Homes were damaged, but there were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries. Only about 1,000 people live in the area.

Weather

The merciless drought that has scorched much of the central USA this year shows no signs of letting up, according to the most recent forecast from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. For a massive portion of the nation — in almost every state west of the Mississippi River — drought is forecast to continue throughout the next several months: According to Wednesday’s U.S. Drought Monitor, the percentage of the USA enduring drought conditions worsened slightly from the week before, from 58.8% to 60.1%.

A crucial 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River may be on the verge of shutdown to barge traffic, a move that could paralyze commerce on the USA’s most vital inland waterway and ultimately drive up consumer prices. Already-low river levels caused by drought could shrink to the point that barges carrying grain, coal and other products won’t be able to navigate the Mississippi.

Two people died and more than 80 people were hurt Thursday when at least 140 vehicles collided in Southeast Texas in a pileup that left trucks twisted on top of each other and authorities rushing to pull survivors from the wreckage. The collision occurred in extremely foggy conditions at about 8:45 a.m. Thanksgiving Day on Interstate 10 southwest of Beaumont, a Gulf Coast city about 80 miles east of Houston. The fog was so thick that deputies didn’t immediately realize they were dealing with multiple accidents.

Days of heavy rain have led to flooding in southwestern England and parts of Wales and at least one fatality. The region has seen four days of non-stop rainfall that has capped months of heavy precipitation, including the wettest April-June period on record. More than 225 areas stretching from Cornwall through the Midlands region to the northeastern coast were under flood warnings Sunday afternoon as the latest system moved through.

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