Signs of the Times (6/27/13)

Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA, Prop 8

In a big day for gay-rights advocates, the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a federal provision denying benefits to legally married same–sex couples and issued a separate ruling that paves the way for same-sex marriages to resume in California. The latter decision did not speak to the constitutionality of gay marriage bans in California, or in the country as a whole. The court avoided a broad ruling, and rather, determined that the defenders of California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage did not have the standing to appeal lower court rulings against the ban. As a result, California is likely to allow same-sex marriages to resume in a matter of weeks. The more sweeping decision, though, came in relation to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which the court said was unconstitutional. The 5-4 ruling means legally married same-sex couples would be eligible for federal benefits.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Wednesday left untouched the thicket of conflicting state and local laws that deny gays and lesbians in the vast majority of states the benefits and legal recognition that marriage provides. A state line still decides who is married and who is not. This disparate treatment under the law is likely to remain unless the 37 states that do not permit same-sex unions reverse course, or if the Supreme Court revisits the question in a broader case and issues a ruling that establishes a constitutional right to marriage. Given the court’s decision in a case involving California’s Proposition 8 on Wednesday, the number of states where gay marriage is legal rose to 13.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council calls the decision “The Defiance of Marriage Act” and notes, “Our country will be celebrating an America that its founders would barely recognize. Freedom, Alexis de Tocqueville once said, requires virtue. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that the pillars of both are under attack. By a single vote, five unelected justices determined that they know better than God and struck at the heart of marriage in America.”

  • A clear sign that the “beginning of sorrows” run-up to the Tribulation is escalating rapidly

Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Part of Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, ruling that Congress had not provided adequate justification for subjecting nine states, mostly in the South, to federal oversight. Chief Justice Roberts said that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. When the law was last renewed, in 2006, Congress relied on data from decades before. The chances that the current Congress could reach agreement on where federal oversight is required are small, most analysts say. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the towering legislative achievements of the civil rights movement. Its central provision, Section 5, requires many state and local governments, mostly in the South, to obtain permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before making changes in laws that affect voting.

  • A victory for states’ rights and a blow against the liberal establishment’s attempts to limit voter ID laws

Texas Lawmakers Fail to Pass Abortion Restrictions

The Texas legislature’s special session ended in chaos and confusion early Wednesday, when a marathon filibuster failed — but so did a Republican effort to pass a bill that would have greatly restricted abortions in the state. The Republican-dominated Senate needed to vote “yea” on the bill by midnight to send it to the governor to sign into law. Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis tried Tuesday to block the abortion bill by attempting a 13-hour filibuster, but fell short by about three hours when the chairman ruled she had gone off topic. The packed gallery of the session erupted in boos. And for 15 minutes — as the clocked ticked toward 12 a.m. — their raucous chants and shouts of “Shame, shame, shame” drowned out the proceedings. The disruption prevented lawmakers from completing their vote by the official end of the session — killing the bill which had enough votes to be passed. The pro-choice victory may be short-lived, though. On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry called a second special session beginning July 1, giving the Republican majority in the statehouse another 30 days to re-ignite the abortion debate — and likely finish the job this time.

Obama Sidesteps Congress to Combat Climate Change

President Obama announced Tuesday that he is planning to sidestep Congress to implement a national plan to combat climate change that will include the first-ever federal regulations on carbon dioxide emitted by existing power plants, despite adamant opposition from Republicans and some energy producers. In a speech at Georgetown University Tuesday, Obama said he’s issuing a presidential memorandum to implement the regulations, meaning none of the steps involved in the plan will require congressional approval. In addition, Obama says he is directing his administration to allow enough renewables on public lands to power 6 million homes by 2020, effectively doubling the capacity from solar, wind and geothermal projects on federal property. Obama also announced an additional $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to spur investment in technologies that can keep carbon dioxide produced by power plants from being released into the atmosphere.

Obama Doing What Americans Want Least

According to a survey conducted by Pew Research, Americans listed their priorities for President Obama’s second term as: 1) strengthening the economy – 86%; 2) improving job situation – 79%;  3) reducing budget deficit – 72%; 4) defending against terrorism – 71%; 5) making Social Security financially sound – 70%; 6) improving education – 70%;  7) making Medicare financially sound – 65%; 8) reducing health costs – 63%. The lowest priorities listed by Americans were: 17) dealing with illegal immigration – 39%; 18) Strengthening gun laws – 37%; 21) dealing with global warming – 28%. So far this year, what have been Obama’s priorities?  Gun laws, immigration and now climate control/global warming.  “The number one priority on Obama’s agenda in January was gun control.  When that failed, he turned to immigration and now he’s turning to global warming and climate control,” reports PoliticalOutcast.com

Senate Immigration Bill Collects Votes to Advance

The bipartisan push to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws took a major step forward Monday evening when the Senate endorsed a proposal to substantially bolster security along the nation’s southern borders as part of measure that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The 67-to-27 vote prevented any filibuster of the plan to devote roughly $30 billion to border enforcement measures, including nearly doubling the Border Patrol force to 40,000 agents from 21,000, and completing 700 miles of fencing. Opponents of the enhanced security questioned whether the steps would ever be taken and said that the legislation should require that the border be secure before undocumented immigrants could begin to seek legal status.

Global Military Spending Down

For the first time since 1998, global military spending is down. This coincides with a major decline in U.S. spending, which fell by more than $40 billion between 2011 and 2012. Even with this decline, however, the United States still had a military budget four times larger than China, the next biggest spender. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) measures annual military spending for most of the world’s armed countries. According to SIPRI, the United States spent $668 billion, more than the combined budgets of the next 10 countries. While the U.S. budget has declined, some of the other global powers, including Russia and China, have ramped up spending. The major decline in the U.S. military budget was the result of declines in overseas military spending after America’s eight-year war in Iraq ended in 2011, as well as the continued wind down of operations in Afghanistan.

Fracking Linked to Well Water Methane

Drinking water wells near natural gas “fracking” sites were six times more likely to be contaminated than others, finds a new study of northeastern Pennsylvania homes near oil and gas fracking sites. A nationwide boom tied to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has revolutionized the picture for U.S. energy production in the past decade. Natural gas production is up about 30% since 2005. Concerns about environmental effects on air and water from the wells, which shatter layers of shale deep underground to release gas or oil, have also risen.

Russia, China Among Worst Countries for Human Trafficking

China and Russia failed to meet minimum standards for fighting human trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department, which dropped the countries to the lowest possible ranking in its 2013 report. The annual “Trafficking in Persons” report ranks 188 countries on performance in fighting various forms of human trafficking. Promises to improve kept China and Russia on the Tier 2 Watchlist for nine consecutive years. Now, the State Department has dropped the two countries, along with Uzbekistan, to Tier 3, on par with countries such as Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe. The report accused China of state-sponsored forced labor under the name “re-education through labor,” as well as widespread sex trafficking. China’s one-child policy — and the skewed sex ratio of 118 boys to 100 girls it caused — has created a huge demand for the “trafficking of foreign women as brides for Chinese men and for forced prostitution. The report cited the Migration Research Center, which estimates that one million people experience “exploitative” labor conditions in Russia.

Report Shows Extremist Groups Flocking to Twitter

Twitter is the new frontier for jihadist propaganda, according to an extensive review of more than 75,000 tweets in a leading counterterrorism journal. The analysis explored the Syrian opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra and its established links to Al Qaeda as a case study. “Twitter has become the main hub for the active dissemination of links guiding users to digital content,” the ‘Tweeting for the Caliphate’ report found, adding that a new generation of jihadists now engages in attacks after extensive exposure to online propaganda. Increasingly, investigators found Al Qaeda web forums are buying into social media and promoting their official Twitter accounts on their main web pages. It is not uncommon for videos, linked to jihadist tweets, to get upwards of 5,000 views.

  • In a world of good and evil, the forces of darkness will always attempt to exploit the latest technology to advance its anti-Christ agenda

New Bird Flu Strain Kills One out of Three

More than a third of patients infected with a new strain of bird flu died after being admitted to the hospital earlier this year, Chinese researchers report in a new study. Since the new H7N9 bird flu first broke out in China in late March, the strain has sickened more than 130 people and killed 37. The World Health Organization has previously described H7N9 as “one of the most lethal influenza viruses” it has ever seen and said it appeared to spread faster than the last bird flu strain, H5N1, that threatened to unleash a pandemic. The outbreak was stopped after China closed many of its live animal markets — scientists assume the virus was infecting people through exposure to live birds.

Economic News

Home prices climbed 2.5% from March, posting the biggest one-month rise in the 12-year history of the index.  Prices are up 12.1% compared to April 2012, making their strongest gains in seven years. A drop in foreclosures, coupled with a tight supply of homes for sale, has fueled the rebound in prices over the last 11 months. The number of homes for sale appears to have bottomed in January and is up 6.1%.

Rising interest rates have hit mortgages big time. Rates on 30-year, fixed-rate home loans spiked 0.53 percentage points to an average of 4.46% this week — the largest weekly increase in more than 26 years. Rates for 15-year loans, popular with homeowners refinancing their mortgages, jumped 0.46 percentage points to 3.5%. An extra percentage point will cost home buyers with 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages $56 more a month for every $100,000 they borrow. “If sustained, the rate increase will take some of the steam out of the housing market.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits fell 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 346,000 the week ended June 22nd. Since March, claims for jobless aid have fluctuated between 340,000 and 360,000, a level consistent with steady hiring. Employers added 175,000 jobs in May. However, job growth of more than 200,000 jobs a month is what’s really needed to kick-start economic growth.

Personal income rose 0.5% in May, a sign that steady – though slow – wage gains have continued as the economy puts itself back together. The rise in incomes was accompanied by a 0.3% bump in personal spending. Spending was down 0.3% in April, the biggest drop since 2009, and the jump suggests a rise in consumer confidence.

The price of gold Wednesday fell 3.5% to $1,229.60 an ounce, the lowest level since Aug. 24, 2010. Gold is down nearly 23% this quarter, positioning the metal for its largest quarterly loss since 1920. Meanwhile, the price of silver is at its lowest since August 2010. Wednesday, silver fell 5.5% to $18.57 an ounce.

Middle East

The southern Lebanese city of Sidon, near the Israeli border, was the scene of fierce clashes Sunday and Monday between soldiers of the national army and gunman from Sunni Moslem factions loyal to the Salafi-Islamist Sheikh, Ahmed al-Assir, who has ties to rebels fighting the regime of president Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria. The army reported that 15 of its soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in the clashes with an unknown number of casualties among the Salafi-Islamist groups. Soldiers have surrounded al-Assir’s headquarters while the Sheik has issued an appeal over the internet for all Sunni Muslims to abandon the national army and rally to his cause.

Israel’s air force hit several terrorist related targets in the Gaza Strip overnight Sunday, following a salvo of rockets fired from the Strip into Israel earlier in the evening. The Iron Dome air defense system shot down two rockets headed for the Ashkelon Regional Council area and no damage or injuries were reported from the strikes.

Persecution Watch

Ethnic Fulani Muslims killed a Christian in Nigeria’s Plateau state, less than a week after the Islamic extremist Boko Haram sect killed a pastor in Nigeria’s Borno state, Morning Star News reports. In the latest of a series of attacks this year in the Wase area, 134 miles southeast of Jos in Plateau state, Fulani Muslims killed Toma Vongjen, 40, and left church buildings in four villages in ruins, Most churches in Wase have closed due to the violence, and surviving pastors have been relocated. “There are Christian villages that have been completely wiped out by these Muslim terrorists,” Rev. Dinfa Lamda said. “Just last week Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacked some Christian farmers in Wase and destroyed all the crops they planted on their farms.”

Voice of the Martyrs reports that on June 2, Pastor Robert Ngai in Geita, northeastern Tanzania, was attacked by a large group of radical Muslims. The attackers broke into his home and attacked him with machetes, and Ngai received serious cuts on his hands and arms when he raised his arms to protect his head from the blows. The injuries were beyond local doctors’ ability to treat, so he was rushed to a hospital in a nearby, larger city for treatment. Ngai is the pastor of the Evangelical Assemblies of God Church. Two nights before the attack on Pastor Ngai, the home of Pastor Daudi Nzumbi in Geita also came under attack. Pastor Nzumbi leads the Free Pentecostal Church of Tanzania in Geita. Thankfully, the attackers fled after they were confronted by Pastor Nzumbi’s large, barking dogs. When Pastor Nzumbi called the police, the officer in charge told him, “I cannot protect every pastor!”

Voice of the Martyrs also reports that in Colombia FARC guerrillas had already killed one of the pastor’s sons. They said they’d kill each one of his children if he didn’t leave the village; In North Africa, when Musa’s coworkers and neighbors learned that he had become a Christian, he was fired from his job and his neighbors threatened to throw him out of the building unless he returned to Islam; In Somalia raddical Al-Shabaab militants literally hunt down and kill Christians to make Somalia a “pure” Muslim country.

Syrian Christians are the victims of disproportionate violence and abuse as sectarian violence continues to engulf Syria, Open Doors USA reports. Christian women are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, while Christian men are facing pressure from both sides to join the battle. The result, the report claims, is that Christians are scared to engage in public displays of worship, while proportionally more Christian refugees are leaving Syria than any other religious or ethnic group.

Many Coptic Christians are fleeing to the United States and Europe because they no longer feel safe in Egypt, the Christian Post reports. They feel the Islamist government is not doing enough to protect them against discrimination and hate crimes, so they are resorting to fleeing the country. Many Copts are electing to go the United States, a country in which Egyptians now rank as the second highest nationality receiving asylum. In 2010, only 531 Egyptians received asylum in the U.S.; however, 2,882 Egyptians received asylum in 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Copts are also fleeing to Georgia and the Netherlands because both countries have decreased restrictions on those seeking asylum.

Pakistan

Islamic militants wearing police uniforms shot to death ten foreign tourists (one American) and one Pakistani before dawn Sunday as they were visiting one of the world’s highest mountains in a remote area of northern Pakistan. The foreigners who were killed included five Ukrainians, three Chinese and one Russian. One Chinese tourist was wounded in the attack and was rescued. The local branch of the Taliban took responsibility for the killings, saying it was to avenge the death of a leader killed in a U.S. drone strike. The shooting is likely to damage the country’s struggling tourism industry. Pakistan’s mountainous north — considered until now relatively safe — is one of the main attractions in a country beset with insurgency and other political instability.

Turkey

Turkish police used water cannon to disperse thousands gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Saturday to observe a memorial for four people killed during recent anti-government protests. The officers later fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and in some cases beat people with batons, to scatter demonstrators who regrouped in side streets. The police move came as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that foreign-led conspirators he alleges are behind the anti-government movement in his country also are fomenting the recent unrest in Brazil. The protests in Turkey erupted three weeks ago after riot police brutally cracked down on peaceful environmental activists who opposed plans to develop Gezi Park, which lies next to Taksim. The demonstrations soon turned into expressions of discontent with what critics say is Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leadership.

Afghanistan

A group of attackers stormed the entrance to the presidential palace in Kabul early Tuesday — but they were quickly repelled. Three guards died in the attack and another was injured. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault. All of the attackers were killed. The palace is located in the Shash Darak district of Kabul, near the U.S. embassy and the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force. Some Kabul residents initially thought the gunfire was a coup attempt because the idea of a Taliban attack within the security zone seemed so unlikely.

Egypt

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a peace offering to Morsy (Illustrative)opponents on Wednesday, offering them a larger share in the decision-making process for the new constitution as the entire country remained on edge ahead of protests planned for this Sunday. He also blamed remnants of the deposed Mubarak regime along with “thugs” and a hostile media for the recent unrest in the country, including demonstrations in several cities on Wednesday during which two people were killed and many others wounded. “Political polarization and conflict has reached a stage that threatens our nascent democratic experience and threatens to put the whole nation in a state of paralysis and chaos,” he said. “The enemies of Egypt have not spared effort in trying to sabotage the democratic experience.”

On the very day when the IRS targeting scandal broke, Secretary of State John Kerry provided a new, $1.3 billion cash stimulus for the Muslim Brotherhood. Without a press release or public fanfare, he waived human rights conditions placed on American military aid to Egypt’s anti-American and anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood government. With this action, the Obama Administration reinforces the Muslim Brotherhood even as it steps up its blasphemy prosecutions against Egypt’s Christians and even as Egypt’s president appointed an actual terrorist leader as governor of an important region.

Brazil

A quarter-million Brazilians took to the streets in the latest a wave of sometimes-violent protests that are increasingly focusing on corruption and reforming a government system in which people have lost faith. A new poll shows that 75 percent of citizens support the demonstrations. The turnout in Saturday’s protests was lower than the 1 million participants seen on Thursday and there was less violence. The protests have become the largest public demonstrations Latin America’s biggest nation has seen in two decades. They began as opposition to transportation fare hikes, then became a laundry list of causes including anger at high taxes, poor services and World Cup spending, before coalescing around the issue of rampant government corruption. Under pressure after more than a week of nationwide protests, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff said Monday her government will spend $23 billion more on public transportation and announced five core areas that leaders will focus on to speed political reform and improvements to government services.

Wildfires

Fanned by another afternoon of high winds, the erratic wildfire threatening tourist areas of the southwestern Colorado mountains grew to 114 square miles on Sunday. Some 600 firefighters spent another day trying to keep the flames from moving in on the Wolf Creek Ski area and the historic mining town of Creede. Firefighters were strictly in defensive mode, with no containment of the fire. The blaze’s rapid advance on Friday prompted the evacuation of hundreds of summer visitors and the town’s 400 permanent residents, and it could be days before people are allowed back into their homes, cabins and RV parks.

Due to a record-setting heat wave, eighteen large (over 100 acres) wildfires are burning in Alaska, having already consumed over 376,000 acres (587 square miles) as of Tuesday morning. Fortunately, only four structures have been destroyed thus far, although many remain threatened.

Weather

Parts of the Midwest saw severe tree damage and serious flash flooding Monday, including a derecho (horizontal straight-line rain) that swept across the Chicago area after dropping several tornadoes in eastern Iowa and northwest Illinois. Over 200 reports of wind damage came from this storm system, including eight different incidents of semi-trucks being blown over from western Iowa to northeast Illinois. The Monday storms snarled traffic, air travel, and downed dozens of trees in the region. There were also several tornado reports.

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