Signs of the Times (3/19/13)

North Dakota Passes Most Restrictive Abortion Bill in Nation

North Dakota’s Senate passed a pair of anti-abortion measures Friday that are considered to be the most restrictive in the nation, including one that would prevent women from having an abortion based on a genetic defect. The other measure would ban doctors from performing an abortion if a fetal heartbeat is detected — as early as five or six weeks. The measures now to go to Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple who has indicated he will sign them. The new state laws are even more restrictive than one finalized last week in Arkansas that would make the procedure illegal after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Miss. School Prayer Law Could Face Legal Challenge

A Christian attorney is confident Mississippi’s new school prayer law will stand up to any court challenge – and his legal firm promises free legal representation should the ACLU or anyone else raise such an obstacle to the law. The law, which goes into effect July 1, allows public school students to initiate prayers in what is described as a “limited public forum” – football games or morning announcements, for example. It also allows students to express their faith in classroom assignments without fear of it affecting their grade or causing them to be called to the principal’s office. “We believe that we’re on firm ground here with our opportunity for religious expression in a limited forum within public schools,” the governor said at the signing.

Atheist Group Demands ‘In God We Trust’ Be Removed From Currency

A prominent atheist activist group has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to have the historic phrase “In God We Trust” removed from the nation’s currency, the Christian News Network reports. The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a press release this week about the suit, advising that the case is being handled by well-known atheist Michael Newdow, who has filed numerous lawsuits challenging the mixture of God and government. The complaint, which has been filed in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York, claims the motto violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution as it serves to proselytize unbelievers. Those filing the lawsuit, which include seven children and their parents, along with other entities and the group New York City Atheists, state they do not like being forced to look at the name of God on their money every time they make a purchase. “The motto necessarily excludes atheists and others who don’t believe in one god or a god,” FFRF asserts. “Our government is prohibited from endorsing one religion over another but also prohibited from endorsing religion over nonreligion.” The motto “In God We Trust” has appeared on U.S. coins since 1864 and began being printed on paper currency in 1957.

  • The Constitution mandates freedom of religion, not freedom from religion

Judge Rules Secret FBI National Security Surveillance Unconstitutional

A federal judge has struck down a set of laws allowing the FBI to issue so-called national security letters to banks, phone companies and other businesses demanding customer information. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said the laws violate the First Amendment and the separation of powers principles and ordered the government to stop issuing the secretive letters or enforcing their gag orders. The FBI almost always bars recipients of the letters from disclosing to anyone — including customers — that they have even received the demands, Illston said in the ruling released Friday. The government has failed to show that the letters and the blanket non-disclosure policy “serve the compelling need of national security,” and the gag order creates “too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted,” the San Francisco-based Illston wrote.

Supreme Court Hears Arizona Voter-Registration Law

The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Arizona’s voter-registration law, which aims to keep illegal immigrants off the voter rolls but has made access difficult for some citizens, could come down to one swing justice if questions at Monday’s hearing provide any clues to opinions on the bench. Justice Anthony Kennedy, may reprise that role in a case that deals with election integrity and access to the voting booth. A number of controversial Arizona laws reviewed by the high court in recent years, including the immigration-enforcement measure known as Senate Bill 1070, have come down to split decisions. This measure requires Arizonans who register to vote to provide documentary proof of citizenship, such as a copy of a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport, tribal identification card or naturalization number. The law goes beyond what federal voter-registration rules require as proof of citizenship. Prop. 200 was almost immediately challenged by voting-rights advocates as burdensome to the young, elderly, minorities and naturalized citizens and to voter-registration organizations. Supporters touted the law as a check against voter fraud.

Big Increase in Border-Crossing Deaths Reported

Fewer people are illegally crossing America’s southwest border with Mexico, but the region saw a big increase in immigrant deaths in 2012, according to a report released Tuesday. U.S. Border Patrol identified 477 deaths along the southwest border, up from 375 the year before, according to the report from the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based group that researches immigration issues. That 27% increase in deaths comes even as total migration from Mexico has slowed in recent years. Part of the reason for the rise in deaths is the increase in Border Patrol agents that has driven immigrants to more remote, treacherous areas along the border. Lack of water and high desert heat combine to make such trips very dangerous.

Pentagon Plans to Bolster Missile Defense

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled Friday a $1 billion Pentagon plan to beef up missile defense in response to threats from North Korea, saying part of the plan would be to explore three new sites for ground-based interceptors. One of the potential sites would be at Alaska’s Fort Greely, which already is home to missile silos. The other two potential locations haven’t been disclosed but would be somewhere on the East Coast. The Pentagon would commit at least 14 additional ground-based interceptors to Fort Greely and send an additional radar system to Japan. The plan is expected to be “in place” by 2017.

UN Reopens Talks on Arms Trade Treaty

Negotiators will reconvene this week to try to hammer out a landmark U.N. treaty designed to regulate the multibillion-dollar global arms trade amid objections from a bipartisan group of legislators and the most powerful gun-rights lobbying group in the U.S. Governmental representatives will meet in New York starting Monday to try to reach consensus on the Arms Trade Treaty, which would require all countries to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and to regulate arms brokers. The draft treaty under consideration does not control the domestic use of weapons in any country, but it would prohibit states that ratify the treaty from transferring conventional weapons if they would violate arms embargoes or if they would promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

Many countries, including the United States, control arms exports, but there has never been an international treaty regulating the estimated $60 billion global arms trade. Hopes of reaching agreement on what would be a landmark treaty were dashed last July when the United States said it needed more time to consider the proposed accord — then Russia and China also asked for a delay. The National Rifle Association has portrayed the treaty as a threat to gun ownership rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

Colorado Sheriff Won’t Enforce New Gun Laws

Weld County Sheriff John Cooke won’t enforce new state gun measures expected to be signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. “They’re feel-good, knee-jerk reactions that are unenforceable,” said. Lawmakers in Colorado on Friday approved a landmark expansion of background checks on firearm purchases. Earlier in the week, Colorado lawmakers approved a 15-round limit on ammunition magazines. The sheriff also said that he and other county sheriffs “won’t bother enforcing” the laws because it won’t be possible to keep track of how gun owners are complying with the new requirements.

Economic News

Housing starts in February rose 0.8% from January, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 917,000, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. The rate is 27.7% above February 2012. Single-family starts were running at a 618,000 annual rate, up 0.5% from January. In addition, building permits for future construction were running at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000, up 4.6% from January and 33.8% above February 2012.

Homes sold faster last month than in any February since 2007 as eager buyers met a tight supply of homes for sale, industry figures show. Homes were on the market for a median of 98 days last month, down from 123 days in February 2011, according to Realtor.com. In Oakland, homes spent just 14 days on the market last month before they went under contract. In Sacramento, just 21 days. While eight of the 10 fastest-moving markets were in California, Denver and Seattle made the top 10, too, with median market times of 28 and 33 days.

Nearly all of the markets with low median market times are also seeing big declines in homes listed for sale. The average drop-off was 48% from a year earlier in the markets with the greatest declines in supply. Most were in California. That compared with a 16% drop for 146 other metropolitan regions.

Eurozone

Cyprus’s Parliament is likely to reject an international bailout package that involves taxing ordinary depositors to pay part of the bill, President Nicos Anastasiades said Tuesday.Cash-strapped Cyprus secured a $13 billion bailout package from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund in a bid to prevent the island nation from entering a bankruptcy that could rekindle the region’s debt crisis, officials said early Saturday. In return for the rescue loans, Cyprus was required to trim its deficit, significantly shrink its troubled banking sector, raise taxes and privatize state asset. In a major departure from established policies, the package foresees a one-time levy on the money held in bank accounts in Cyprus. Analysts have warned that making depositors take a hit threatens to undermine investors’ confidence in other weaker eurozone economies and might possibly lead to bank runs.

Middle East

Apartment buildings and residences sandwiched into the very fabric of Arab East Jerusalem are undermining the idea that the area could ever serve as the capital of a Palestinian state. Israel’s building of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and West Bank territories seized during the 1967 war has been a longstanding friction point between Jerusalem and Washington. With President Obama scheduled to visit this week, the government has postponed action on several East Jerusalem projects. While most Middle East experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have long imagined Jerusalem as ultimately being divided, with Jewish neighborhoods remaining part of Israel and Arab ones joining Palestine, these new buildings make such a plan more complicated if not impossible — which may be exactly the point.

  • A divided Jerusalem was never a practical solution, but more significantly, it would violate God’s will, having declared that it is His capital on earth.

Syria

Syria’s information minister says a chemical weapon fired by rebels on a village in the north of the country is the “first act” by the opposition interim government announced in Istanbul. Omran al-Zoubi says the missile containing “poisonous gases” was fired from Nairab district in Aleppo into Khan al-Assal village on Tuesday morning. He says 16 people were killed and 86 wounded in the attack. Rebels have denied the accusation and say regime forces fired the weapon. Omran also says the attack is the results of the decision by some in the international community to arm the Syrian opposition.

The Syrian regime is expanding its use of widely banned cluster bombs, an international human rights group said Saturday as the deadlocked conflict entered its third year. In recent months, the regime has escalated airstrikes and artillery attacks on rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country. In response, rebels detonated a powerful car bomb outside a high-rise building in the eastern city of Deir el-Zou. The blast came a day after Syrians marked the second anniversary of their uprising against President Bashar Assad. The rebellion had begun with largely peaceful protests but in response to a regime crackdown turned into an insurgency and then a civil war.

Iraq

The U.S. suffered more than 4,480 deaths and 32,000 wounded during the Iraq War, which opened 10 years ago this week. The price tag for the war, according to nonpartisan congressional researchers, was at least $806 billion, although that figure doesn’t take into account related expenses such as coming decades of veterans benefits and other costs including medical treatment. While history’s verdict is not yet in, the new Iraq so far hasn’t turned out to be the stable, strategic ally in the region that U.S. officials envisioned, despite the $60 billion that taxpayers spent on reconstruction. Greatly weakened, Iraq now is viewed as vulnerable to influence from neighboring Iran as well as internal sectarian violence, nor were any weapons of mass destruction ever found.

  • Much of the USA’s debt burden is due to the expensive Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

A wave of bombings tore through the Baghdad area Tuesday, killing 57 people on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion and showing how unstable Iraq remains more than a year after the withdrawal of American troops. Violence has ebbed sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007. But insurgents maintain the ability to stage high-profile attacks while sectarian and ethnic rivalries continue to tear at the fabric of national unity.

Iran

Harsh economic sanctions have taken a serious toll on Iran’s economy, but U.S. and European officials acknowledge that the measures have not yet produced the kind of public unrest that could force Iranian leaders to change their nuclear policies. Nine months after Iran was hit with the toughest restrictions in its history, the nation’s economy appears to have settled into a slow, downward glide, hemorrhaging jobs and hard currency but appearing to be in no immediate danger of collapse, Western diplomats and analysts say. At the same time, the hardships have not triggered significant domestic protests or produced a single concession by Iran on its nuclear program. Although weakened, Iran has resisted Western pressure through a combination of clever tactics, political repression and old-fashioned stubbornness, analysts say. The mixed results from the sanctions complicate the West’s bargaining position ahead of the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, in early April.

North Korea

North Korea test-fired a pair of short-range missiles into its eastern waters this past week in a likely response to ongoing routine U.S.-South Korean military drills, a South Korean official said Saturday. The North launched what appeared to be KN-02 missiles during its own drills. North Korea routinely launches short-range missiles in an effort to improve its arsenal, but the latest test comes at a time of rising tensions. Pyongyang has threatened nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington because of the U.S.-South Korean drills and recent U.N. sanctions over its third nuclear test.

Though North Korea has threatened to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S., the most immediate threat posed by its nuclear technology may be North Korea’s willingness to sell it to nations that Washington sees as sponsors of terrorism. The fear of such sales was highlighted this week, when Japan confirmed that cargo seized last year and believed to be from North Korea contained material that could be used to make nuclear centrifuges, which are crucial to enriching uranium into bomb fuel.

Japan

The Japanese utility that owns the tsunami-damaged nuclear power plant says it has detected a record 740,000 becquerels per kilogram of radioactive cesium in a fish caught close to the plant. That’s 7,400 times the government limit for safe human consumption. The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, causing meltdowns that spewed radiation into the surrounding soil and water. Most fish along the Fukushima coast are barred from market.

Solar Flare

A massive eruption on the sun Friday unleashed a wave of intense solar particles at Earth that sparked a geomagnetic storm and boosted aurora displays over the weekend. The sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle and is expected to reach its peak activity in 2013. The eruption sent a wave of solar particles streaking toward Earth at about 900 miles per second, about 3.2 million miles per hour. The northern lights are produced when charged particles from the sun interact with atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The awe-inspiring displays — shimmering, translucent green, purple, and red “curtains” that seem to billow across the night sky — are common in extreme northern latitudes, where a constant stream of such particles arrives on the so-called “solar wind.”

Wildfires

A wildfire burning in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee has destroyed more than 30 large rental cabins. Tennessee authorities declared a state of emergency and sent in the National Guard on Monday in an effort to control the fast-moving wildfire near the resort town of Pigeon Forge. The fire started about 5 p.m. Sunday and quickly spread, charring more than 30 cabins and turning propane tanks into shrapnel. About 20 fire departments have been fighting the fire. The 230 acre blaze started as a house fire. The area is home to rental cabins with some permanent residences. Heavy rains Monday helped firefighters contain the wildfire that damaged dozens of mountain homes outside the Tennessee resort town of Pigeon Forge.

A wind-driven wildfire scorched its way through Lory State Park west of Fort Collins on Friday, threatening hundreds of homes south of its path as flames flared above Horsetooth Reservoir. The Galena Fire was estimated at between 750 and 1,000 acres by fire officials, and there were no natural barriers blocking its spread to evacuated homes in the Inlet Bay area. Firefighters say the cause of the fire is unknown. High winds hampered efforts to control the blaze, but firefighters saved two homes and the park’s visitor center. People forced from their homes by a wildfire in the foothills west of Fort Collins have been given the OK to return Sunday after the fire was 45% contained.

Earthquakes

In 2011, the Oregon Legislature authorized the study of what would happen if a quake and tsunami such as the one that devastated Japan hit the Pacific Northwest. The commission determined that more than 10,000 people could die when – not if – a monster earthquake and tsunami occur just off the Pacific Northwest coast, researchers told the legislators Thursday. Coastal towns would be inundated. Schools, buildings and bridges would collapse, and economic damage could hit $32 billion. The Cascadia Subduction Zone, just off the regional coastline, produced a mega-quake in the year 1700. Seismic experts say another monster quake and tsunami are overdue.

  • Earthquakes have been increasing in frequency just as the Bible prophesied regarding the end-times: And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences. (Luke 21:11) I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake. (Revelation 6:12)

Weather

A winter storm brought severe weather into the southern states Monday, including intense thunderstorms that produced huge hailstones throughout the southern United States. Two tornadoes have been confirmed so far, both in Tennessee. Winds of over 100 mph destroyed one mobile home and several outbuildings. In all, there were 264 reports of severe weather Monday and Monday night across seven states from southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana to South Carolina.  For the entire month of March prior to Monday, there had been a total of just 165 severe reports.

The day before spring officially arrived, New England was promised one final, sloppy blow of the winter season, with forecasters predicting several inches of snow. A winter storm was forecast for late Monday and early Tuesday and could stick around throughout the day, covering newly bare patches of ground and forcing people to gas up their snow blowers again. The National Weather Service forecast 7 to 19 inches of a mix of snow and sleet in northern New England.

Communities and businesses all along the coasts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are praying for rain as record-low water levels threaten the region’s economic stability. The area set record lows for precipitation in January and are expected to stay 2 feet below long-term averages at least through August. Blame the extended drought and hot weather that speeds evaporation, says Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit district. Inaccessible harbors mean trouble for marinas, restaurants, resorts and almost every other business in waterfront towns. Commercial shippers must lighten their loads, increasing costs for their customers and consumers.

With the planet heating up, many scientists seem fairly certain some weather elements like hurricanes and droughts will worsen. But tornadoes have them stumped. These unpredictable, sometimes deadly storms plague the United States more than any other country. But as the traditional tornado season nears, scientists have been pondering a simple question: Will there be more or fewer twisters as global warming increases? They don’t yet have an answer.

  • End-time tornadoes will increase in both intensity and frequency

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