Signs of the Times (1/7/14)

Supreme Court Puts Gay Marriage on Hold in Utah

The Supreme Court on Monday put gay marriage on hold in Utah, giving the state time to appeal a federal judge’s ruling against Utah’s same-sex marriage ban. The court issued a brief order Monday blocking any new same-sex unions in the state. The ruling comes after a Dec. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage violates gay and lesbian couples’ constitutional rights. The decision, in one of the country’s most conservative states, touched off a flurry of court filings as some jurisdictions started issuing marriage licenses. More than 900 gay and lesbian couples have married since the Dec. 20 ruling. The high court order will remain in effect until the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold Shelby’s ruling.

Republican officials to join pro-lifers at March for Life

The annual March for Life later this month on the National Mall will have some unprecedented participants: the chairman and members of the Republican National Committee. The Washington Times is reporting that RNC chairman Reince Priebus – in an extraordinary move – is delaying the four-day winter meeting of the Committee so that he and members who wish to join him can hop aboard a chartered bus and join thousands of pro-lifers in the annual right-to-life march, scheduled for January 22 in the nation’s capital. The 2014 March for Life rally will begin at noon on the National Mall, followed immediately by the march up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court building. This year’s observance will be the 40th March for Life. Jeanie Monahan, a spokesperson for March for Life, told OneNewsNow, “Of course we’re nonpartisan, but we’re absolutely delighted by the development.”

Planned Parenthood Board Member Says Abortion is a ‘Sacred Gift’

In recent opinion columns, Planned Parenthood board member Valerie Tarico wrote that abortion is a “sacred gift” and celebrated her belief that Christianity is “in decline,” Christian News reports. In one such Huffington Post article last January, Tarico encouraged readers to “honor women who decide to terminate pregnancies.” They are “doing God’s work,” she wrote. “An abortion when needed is a blessing. It is a gift, a grace, a mercy, a cause for gratitude, a new lease on life. Being able to choose when and whether to bring a child into the world enables us and our children to flourish.” Tarico believes reason and science will propel our society away from Biblical views.

  • Yet another example of how secular humanists rationalize away God’s laws and then attribute Satan’s agenda to the Almighty

Chicago Gun Sale Ban Unconstitutional, Judge Rules

A federal judge on Monday overturned Chicago’s ban on the sale and transfer of firearms, ruling that the city’s ordinances aimed at reducing gun violence are unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Edmond E. Chang said in his ruling that while the government has a duty to protect its citizens, it’s also obligated to protect constitutional rights, including the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. However, Chang said he would temporarily stay the effects of his ruling, meaning the ordinances can stand while the city decides whether to appeal. The decision is just the latest to attack what were some of the toughest gun-control laws in the nation. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s long-standing gun ban. And last year, Illinois legislators were forced by a federal appeals court to adopt a law allowing residents to carry concealed weapons in Illinois, the only state that still banned the practice.

Congress is Back — and Divided as Ever

Congress resumes work Monday as divided as ever on the nation’s priorities and focused on themes lawmakers hope will resonate with voters ahead of November’s midterm elections. Democrats, who have seized on income inequality as a major theme of the 2014 campaign, are pushing to increase the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage. A preliminary Senate vote to extend unemployment benefits was postponed Monday night after the extreme cold across much of the country prevented some senators from traveling back to Washington. The bill seeks to extend long-term unemployment insurance for people out of work for 26 weeks or longer. Meanwhile, Republicans are focusing once again on the Obamacare debacle and reining in government snooping.

Senate Confirms Yellen as Federal Reserve Chair

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Janet Yellen to serve as the next chair of the Federal Reserve, after Ben Bernanke finishes his second term at the end of the month. Senators voted 56 to 26 in her favor, with many missing the vote because of inclement weather. Eleven Republicans broke party ranks, voting to support Yellen. She will be the first woman to head the Federal Reserve in its 100-year history. Yellen brings a robust résumé to the job, including more than a decade in various Fed positions. In her recent role as Fed vice chair, she voiced deep concerns about high unemployment and spoke in favor of the Fed’s bond-buying program as a way to stimulate the economy. Those views closely align with current Chairman Bernanke. In his two terms as chairman, Bernanke led the Fed through a turbulent eight years that included the deepest recession since the Great Depression. Under his leadership, the Fed has taken unprecedented measures to stimulate the economy, cutting its key interest rate to near zero and buying trillions in bonds.

Faulty Websites Confront Needy in Search of Aid

Three months after the disastrous rollout of a new $63 million website for unemployment claims, Florida is hiring hundreds of employees to deal with technical problems that left tens of thousands of people without their checks while penalties mount against the vendor who set up the site. Efforts at modernizing the systems for unemployment compensation in California, Massachusetts and Nevada have also largely backfired in recent months, causing enormous cost overruns and delays. While the nation’s attention was focused on the troubled rollout of the federal health care site under the Affordable Care Act, the problems with the unemployment sites have pointed to something much broader: how a lack of funding in many states and a shortage of information technology specialists in public service jobs routinely lead to higher costs, botched systems and infuriating technical problems that fall hardest on the poor, the jobless and the neediest, reports the New York Times.

  • Reliance on government to manage complex systems, computer or otherwise, has proven over and over again to be fraught with problems, mismanagement and corruption.

Pollution Confirmed from Fracking

In at least four states that have nurtured the nation’s energy boom, hundreds of complaints have been made about well-water contamination from oil or gas drilling, and pollution was confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen. The AP found that Pennsylvania received 398 complaints in 2013 alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells on top of 499 complaints in 2012. The Pennsylvania complaints can include allegations of short-term diminished water flow, as well as pollution from stray gas or other substances. More than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed over the past five years. Over the past 10 years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has led to a boom in oil and natural gas production around the nation.

2013 a Quieter Year for Disasters in USA; Not So in Europe

For the first time in two decades, the world’s costliest natural disasters in 2013 were not in the USA, according to a report released today by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm. Last year, the most expensive weather disasters were in Europe, which included floods in central Europe and hailstorms in Germany. The USA’s relatively quiet year was due primarily to the lack of land-falling hurricanes, which typically contribute a large portion of the natural catastrophe losses, said Hoppe. The North Atlantic had the fewest number of hurricanes since 1982. The USA had $12.8 billion in insured losses in 2013, far below the recent average of $30 billion per year. The costliest disaster was the tornado outbreak in the central U.S. in May.

Worldwide, the direct overall losses of about $125 billion and insured losses of about $31 billion remained below the average figures of the past 10 years ($184 billion and $56 billion). Overall, 20,000 people died in natural catastrophes in 2013, significantly below the 10-year average of 106,000. The world’s deadliest disaster in 2013 was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines and killed more than 6,000 people. The storm did $10 billion in damage, of which only about $700 million was insured. The 2013 typhoon season in the Pacific was above average in terms of activity, with 31 named storms.

E-cigarettes’ Growing Popularity Poses Danger to Kids

Billed as a safer, cleaner way to get a nicotine fix, electronic cigarettes are surging in popularity. But some doctors and researchers say these smoking substitutes are far from harmless — especially to children. More teens are trying these products, even as scientists increasingly raise concerns about the effects of e-cigarettes’ “secondhand vapor” on children. The liquid nicotine used in the devices, which comes in flavors such as bubblegum and cola, is being blamed for a growing number of poisonings across the nation. Nationally, there were 427 E-cigarette poisonings in 2012, according to the latest annual report from the National Poison Data System.

Economic News

U.S. service companies expanded at a steady but slightly slower pace in December as sales dipped and new orders plunged to a four-year low. The report suggests economic growth may remain modest in the coming months. The Institute for Supply Management said Monday that its service-sector index fell to 53 last month, down from 53.9 in November. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion. A measure of new orders plummeted 7 points to 49.4, the first time it has dropped below 50 since July 2009. A gauge of business stockpiles also fell sharply. But a gauge of hiring increased 3.3 points to 55.8, evidence that services firms are adding more jobs.

U.S. factories orders climbed in November, led by a surge in aircraft demand. And businesses stepped up spending on machinery, computers and other long-lasting goods that signal investment. The Commerce Department says factory orders rose 1.8% in November. That follows a 0.5% decrease in October. The index now stands at its highest level since 1992.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 and Nasdaq composite indexes have yet to post a gain over 2014’s three trading days so far. The last time the S&P 500 fell on the first three trading days of a year was 2005.

Millennials are starting to get restless for economic change. Stuck in low-wage or part-time jobs with mountains of student loans to pay off, the generation that came of age in the new millennium finds itself in a hopeless situation. Despite being better educated than previous generations, many young people are shut out of the middle class with no road map of how to get there. So many of them are joining protests, showing up at rallies, or forming unions to improve their situation. In the past year, Millennials turned up the heat against low wages at Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC and others. Some fast food workers wrangled wage increases or better hours. But union-organized rallies are calling for broad-based change and minimum wages of $15. Wal-Mart workers nationwide have also protested, calling for higher pay and more hours.

Persecution Watch

A Christian library in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli was intentionally burned down on Friday night after its owner, a Greek Orthodox priest, was falsely accused of writing an article insulting Islam and the prophet Mohammed. Assailants set fire to the Saeh Library, destroying two-thirds of the collection of 80,000 books and manuscripts. It became clear afterwards that the priest had nothing to do with the pamphlet.

Libya’s recent edict that its coming constitution will be based on Shariah law has sent a chill through the North African nation’s small Christian community. Libya’s Coptic Christians, who number about 300,000, or 5 percent of the population, were allowed to practice their faith under dictator Muammar Qaddafi. But since the strongman was ousted from power, and ultimately killed, Muslim fundamentalists have increasingly filled the power void. Last month, the national assembly voted in favor of making Koranic law, or Shariah, the basis of all legislative decisions, meaning Islam will shape all future banking, criminal and financial cases. The emerging political and legal system’s orientation, combined with the rise of militants in the oil-rich nation, has left Christians feeling uneasy about their future security.

Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia Sunday to discuss his effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He’s had three days of lengthy meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kerry said some progress was made in what he described as “very serious, very intensive conversations,” but key hurdles are yet to be overcome. In an interview on Lebanese television on Saturday, Father Surouj said he forgives those responsible and prays for peace in Tripoli.

Syria’s bloody civil war has spread to the streets of Beirut, where it threatens to destroy the hard-fought progress Lebanon’s capital has made in coming back from its own civil war that lasted from 1975-1990. The country that has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of a war that killed more than 120,000 is being dragged into Syria’s vicious struggle because of Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. That has Al Qaeda, which backs the Syrian rebels, mounting attacks against Hezbollah on the streets of Beirut, once viewed as the Paris of the Middle East. A series of car bombs, assassinations and over-the-border missile attacks have occurred in recent weeks.

Syria

Clashes between Syrian rebels and their rivals from an al-Qaeda-linked faction spread on Monday from the country’s opposition-held areas in the north to a key eastern city. The rebel-on-rebel fighting in the eastern city of Raqqa — a long-time bastion of an al-Qaeda-linked group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant — reflects a widening war within a war in Syria, this one against radical extremists. It also suggests emboldened rebels are trying to completely overrun their al-Qaeda rivals. The infighting has been the most serious since armed groups initially rose to try overthrow the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad who has stubbornly and violently clung to power.

Iraq

Al-Qaeda militants have seized Fallujah, a key city in western Iraq, engaging Iraqi army forces in pitched battles there in a brazen challenge to Iraq’s central government. Militants have occupied police stations and government buildings throughout Fallujah and are also controlling limited parts of Ramadi. Al-Qaeda militants, emboldened by their powerful role in attempting to topple the government in neighboring Syria, have been exploiting the sense of alienation among Sunnis. The fighting in Anbar province comes amid growing sectarian tensions between the minority Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government. The Iraqi army is letting local police and tribes lead the fight against al-Qaeda in Fallujah and Ramadi, a strategy that reflects concerns that a large influx of government forces could provoke a backlash from the mainly Sunni cities.

A new wave of bombings hit Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, killing at least 20 people Sunday, officials said, the latest assault by militants who have been fighting Iraqi security forces and allied tribes in country’s west. The deadliest attack took place in Baghdad’s Shiite northern Shaab neighborhood, when two parked car bombs exploded simultaneously near a restaurant and a tea house. Officials say those blasts killed 10 people and wounded 26. Another bombing killed three civilians and wounded six in a commercial area in the central Bab al-Muadham neighborhood. Two other bombings killed two civilians and wounded 13, police said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that America would support Iraq in its fight against al-Qaeda-linked militants who have overrun two cities in the country’s west, but said the U.S. wouldn’t send troops, calling the battle “their fight.” Kerry told reporters the U.S. was very concerned by the al-Qaeda linked gunmen who have largely taken over Fallujah and Ramadi in an uprising that has been a blow to the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iran

The international isolation of Iran over its gross human rights violations and renegade nuclear program appears to be crumbling as several governments have used November’s nuclear arrangement announced in Geneva to re-establish diplomatic and economic ties with the Islamic Republic. Prominent among these governments is Turkey, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planning a visit to Teheran later this month. Diplomatic delegations from Italy, the UK and other Western powers are also planning visits soon, even as dozens of corporations from around the world race each other to get back into business in Iran.

  • Deceived nations once again value business more than principles, a short-term view that will have horrific long-term consequences

Central African Republic

As the violence in the Central African Republic reaches unprecedented levels, aid organizations say the number of internally displaced people edges toward a million, further hampering humanitarian relief efforts. The nearly 935,000 displaced people are hiding in bushes and seeking refuge with host families. Churches and schools have been turned in to makeshift shelters. More than half the population of the capital city of Bangui has been displaced, and nearly 60% of them are children, according to the latest report from UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. After the predominantly Muslim-backed Seleka militia and other rebel groups from the marginalized northeast seized Bangui, one of the Seleka leaders, Michel Djotodia, overthrew President Francois Bozize, who fled to Cameroon, creating a political power struggle.

South Sudan

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived in neighboring South Sudan on Monday for talks on unrest in the latter nation that has left hundreds dead. Al-Bashir’s visit comes as rival parties in the South Sudan power struggle work to find a solution to the ongoing violence. Meanwhile, talks between South Sudan’s government and rebels began Monday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The negotiations “come not a moment too soon,” African Union Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said. “Stopping the fighting in South Sudan is not only a humanitarian imperative but also a strategic necessity, in order to halt the rapid descent of Africa’s newest nation into collapse.”

Volcanoes

Authorities have extended a danger zone around a rumbling volcano in western Indonesia after it spewed blistering gas farther than expected. More than 50 eruptions on Saturday sent lava and searing gas tumbling out of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra province down the southeastern slopes up to 3 miles away. It was still spitting clouds of gas and lava as high as 13,000 feet on Sunday, but no casualties were reported. More than 20,000 people have been evacuated from villages around the crater into several temporary shelters.

Weather

A blast of swirling, bitterly cold dense air known as a “polar vortex” settled Monday across large parts of the USA as the nation braced for what could be record low temperatures, perhaps the lowest in decades. Monday morning yielded -27 degrees in northern Minnesota while the southern part of the state was a balmy -23 degrees. The mercury also dropped into negative territory in Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago, which set a record for the date at minus 16. Wind chills across the region were 40 below and colder. Records also fell in Oklahoma and Texas. Hardy Midwesterners well accustomed to frigid weather found Monday’s blast of arctic cold to be far beyond anything in recent memory. Brutal subzero temperatures forced school closings, kept people home from work, stymied air travel and posed real danger to anyone lingering outdoors. Single digit lows are expected Tuesday in Georgia and Alabama. Below-zero wind chills were forecast up and down the east coast, including minus 10 in Atlanta and minus 12 in Baltimore.

The extremely cold temperatures and gusty winds are cranking out heavy lake-effect snow in some of the classic snowbelts. Blizzard warnings have been posted for Genesee, Erie and Wyoming Counties in western New York, including the Buffalo metro area. Snow will fall at the rate of at least 1-2 inches per hour. Over a foot of snow is likely within the 10-20 mile wide snowband. Local amounts over three feet are possible, particularly over the “Southtowns” of Buffalo.

2013’s tornado count fell a dramatic 35 percent below average, according to preliminary numbers. Only 878 tornadoes were recorded in 2013. That’s a dramatic difference compared to the average annual tornado statistics of 1,342 over the past ten years. That’s not to say, however, that many areas weren’t devastated by tornados. During a tornado outbreak on Nov. 17, two EF4 tornadoes devastated towns in the Midwest, including Washington, Ill., where homes and businesses were leveled. Earlier in the year, Oklahoma took some heavy tornado hits.

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