Signs of the Times (2/17/14)

Virginia’s Same-Sex Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled Thursday that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, making it the first state in the South to have its voter-approved prohibition overturned. U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen issued a stay of her order while it is appealed, meaning that gay couples in Virginia will still not be able to marry until the case is ultimately resolved. Both sides believe the case won’t be settled until the Supreme Court decides to hear it or one like it. A judge in Kentucky ruled Wednesday that the state must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. It did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriages inside the state, however. The Virginia judge’s ruling also follows similar decisions in Utah and Oklahoma federal courts.

U.S. Loses Nearly Half of Deportation Cases

A growing percentage of immigrants facing deportation in Arizona are now winning their cases, part of a national trend that has reached the highest success rate in more than 20 years, according to a new analysis of court data published Thursday. In Phoenix Immigration Court, more than 78 percent of immigrants facing deportation have won their cases this fiscal year, up from 35.4 percent in fiscal 2010. Nationally, nearly half of immigrants facing deportation are now winning their cases before immigration judges. Nearly 2 million immigrants have been removed by ICE under President Obama. In recent years, the Obama administration has issued policy orders directing immigration authorities to exercise discretion when deciding which immigrants living in the country illegally should be deported. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said discretion should be used for immigrants who didn’t pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Obamacare’s Numbers Inflated

The Obama administration’s latest rosy scenario says about 3.3 million consumers have signed up for health care plans. However, top insurance industry officials estimate that somewhere in the range of 10 to 25 percent of those “enrollees” actually have not yet paid their premiums and are not fully enrolled. Industry officials said that some insurance companies have privately reported up to 30 percent of enrollees have not paid up. According to Investor’s Business Daily’s website Investors.com, roughly 50 about of consumers who had supposedly enrolled for President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform have missed their payment deadline for Jan. 1,

Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Could Pay More under Obamacare

People with serious pre-existing diseases, precisely those the president aimed to help with ObamaCare, could find themselves paying for expensive drug treatments with no help from the health care exchanges. Those with expensive diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis face something called a “closed drug formulary.” Dr. Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute explains: “If the medicine that you need isn’t on that list, it’s not covered at all. You have to pay completely out of pocket to get that medicine, and the money you spend doesn’t count against your deductible, and it doesn’t count against your out of pocket limits, so you’re basically on your own.” One conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, is running an ad on exactly this subject, featuring a woman with lupus, an auto-immune disease. She got a letter saying her insurance was canceled because of ObamaCare, pushing her premiums from $52 to $373 a month.

Genetically Engineered Crops in 12% of Fields

Even as some U.S. consumers reject foods containing ingredients from genetically modified plants, farmers continue to embrace the technology. In 2013, crops grown from seed engineered to withstand weed killers, kill pests or resist diseases made up 11.7% of fields planted worldwide, a report released Thursday says. Last year, farmers planted 12 million more acres of plants genetically engineered to be herbicide tolerant, pest resistant or able to stand up to diseases than in 2012, said the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. The United States leads the world in genetically modified (GM) plantings. In 2013, genetically modified crops included 93% of all soybeans, 90% of all feed corn and 90% of all cotton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other biotech crops, grown in much smaller amounts, include alfalfa, canola, papaya, sweet corn and summer squash, USDA figures show.

Chemicals Causing Neurological Disorders in Children

The number of industrial chemicals with known links to neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism has more than doubled in the past seven years, according to new research published in The Lancet Neurology. As rates of autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increase worldwide, researchers believe widespread exposure to these chemicals among children may be contributing to a “silent epidemic” of people with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Based on an analysis of previous studies, researchers added six new toxins to a list of chemicals believed to pose a threat to the brains of fetuses and young children: manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. These six chemicals have been added to a list of five other neurointoxicants – lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene.

Chlorpyrifos is an organic pesticide that was banned 10 years ago but it is still extensively used in agriculture and can be found in lots of fruits and vegetables. While the pesticide DDT is now banned in the U.S. due to human health risks, it’s still found in imported fruits and vegetables, as well as in soil and water throughout the country. Tetrachloroethylene, which has been linked to deficient neurological function and increased risk of psychiatric diagnosis, is a common solvent used in dry cleaning. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, is a type of flame retardant frequently found in couches.

Medicines Made in India Set Off Safety Worries

India, the second-largest exporter of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to the United States, is coming under increased scrutiny by American regulators for safety lapses, falsified drug test results and selling fake medicines. Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, arrived in India this week to express her growing unease with the safety of Indian medicines because of “recent lapses in quality at a handful of pharmaceutical firms.” India’s pharmaceutical industry supplies 40 percent of over-the-counter and generic prescription drugs consumed in the United States, so the increased scrutiny could have profound implications for American consumers. The increased scrutiny has led to a flood of new penalties, including half of the warning letters the agency issued last year to drug makers.

Economic News

The House voted Tuesday to raise the government’s borrowing limit, as GOP leaders backed down from a potential confrontation with Democrats by declining to seek any concessions in exchange for the increase. The debt-ceiling bill passed on a 221-201 vote. The measure approved by the House does not raise the debt limit by a set amount but does suspend it through March 15, 2015. That buys the Treasury Department the leeway it needs to borrow money to pay for Social Security checks, payments on government debt and paychecks for federal workers. The Senate on Wednesday approved the increase in the nation’s debt limit as party leaders opted to avert another standoff over the government’s deficit spending. Obama signed the legislation Saturday.

Already this year, 31 companies have sold their shares to the public for the first time, a 72% increase from this point in 2013, says Kathleen Smith of Renaissance Capital. That’s the best start for initial public offerings since at least 2006. If the trends stay in place, 2014 could be the best start to a year since the dot-com boom of 2000.

The earnings gap between young U.S. adults with and without bachelor’s degrees has stretched to its widest level in nearly half a century. Young adults with just a high-school diploma earned 62 percent of the typical salary of college graduates. That’s down from 81 percent in 1965.

The revived online black market Silk Road says hackers took advantage of an ongoing Bitcoin network glitch to steal $2.7 million from its customers. Attackers made off with all of the funds it held in escrow. At the time of the attack, here were about 4,440 bitcoins in Silk Road’s escrow account. The news has shaken confidence in Bitcoin. Prices dropped sharply overnight. The FBI shut down Silk Road and arrested its alleged founder in October, but shortly thereafter, tech-savvy outlaws started Silk Road 2.0 in its place. It is primarily used to buy and sell illegal drugs.

Sales of guns and ammo are losing steam after a frenzied run-up sparked by fears of greater restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting and other massacres. Background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, considered to be the most accurate means of tracking gun sales, plunged by a third in January compared to the year before. There were about 1.66 million background checks last month, and nearly 2.5 million in January the year before.

Persecution Watch

Yesterday, the Thomas More Society filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of Pharmacist Dr. Philip Hall against the Walgreen Company. The complaint alleges that, in August 2013, Walgreens wrongfully fired Hall, who had been employed for six years as a pharmacist at Walgreens’ store in Jamestown, Tennessee, in violation of his constitutionally and statutorily protected rights to freedom of religion. Hall, a practicing Baptist, entertains profound religious and moral objections to dispensing abortifacients, or abortion-inducing drugs, such as Plan B. For six years, Walgreens respected Hall’s religious beliefs and gave him only favorable reviews for his work performance. But in August 2013, Walgreens did an “about-face” and tried to force Hall to dispense Plan B in violation of his beliefs. When Hall indicated his intent to continue following the internal procedures that accommodated his beliefs, Walgreens fired him.

Eleven worshippers and a family of seven have been killed in separate acts of anti-Christian violence in Northern Nigeria. A church in Sabon Garin Yamdula village, Adamawa state, came under attack by Islamist Boko Haram gunmen. The militants stormed the church and fired into the congregation, killing eleven people, including the pastor. They tried to burn down the church building and other parts of the village but were driven away by local youths. It was the second attack on a church in the Madagali Local Government Area in less than a week. Around 53 people are reported to have died in a suspected Boko Haram attack on a church in Wada Chakawa on 26 January.

Christian persecution continues to rise in China, according to the China Aid’s 2013 Persecution Report. Looking specifically at government persecution of Christians, persecution cases in China rose by 38.82% between 2012 and 2013. The most dramatic jump is in the number of people persecuted, which rose from 4,919 in 2012 to 7,424 in 2013, an increase of 50.9%.The China Aid report also cited evidence of government plans to continue “regulating” house churches.

Attempts to purge Muslims from parts of the war-torn Central African Republic have prompted “a Muslim exodus of historic proportions,” rights group Amnesty International warned Wednesday. International peacekeepers have “failed to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Muslim civilians in the western part of the Central African Republic,” the group said. The Central African Republic, a former French colony, was plunged into chaos last year after a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels dubbed Seleka ousted President Francois Bozize. They have since been forced out of power, but Christian militias, known as the anti-balaka, which translates as “anti-machete,” have been allowed to fill the power vacuum, Amnesty International said, with dire consequences for Muslim civilians. “Anti-Balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic,” said Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International.

  • More of a hue and cry about Muslim persecution in the mainstream media than about similar and more prevalent persecution of Christians in many other nations.

Middle East

Israel will not lift the blockade on Gaza despite Turkish demands, diplomatic sources in Jerusalem say. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Tuesday at a press conference in Istanbul that there can be no reconciliation with Jerusalem “as long as the siege on Gaza is not lifted.” Israel maintains that the blockade is a fundamental national security issue. Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the takeover of the area by the Hamas terror group, southern Israel has been continuously bombarded with rockets and missiles launched from Gaza.

Syria

Syria has shipped out 11% of its chemical weapons stockpile — falling far short of the February 5 deadline to have all such arms removed from the country, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told CNN Wednesday. The slow pace of removal prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to warn last month that all options remain available to force compliance. Meanwhile, groups of civilians were evacuating a besieged city Wednesday as opposition leaders unveiled a diplomatic road map they hope will lead their country out of a brutal civil war. Efforts to end Syria’s roughly 3-year-long civil war are on the brink of failure and the crisis is worsening, following a second round of stalled talks. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Moscow  Sunday to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table by cutting shipments of weapons and aid to the Damascus regime after peace talks ended over the weekend with little progress.

Iraq

A series of daring but little noticed breakouts from Iraqi prisons has freed hundreds of hardened militants who are now among the leaders and foot soldiers of the radical Sunni groups operating in neighboring Syria and, increasingly, in Iraq itself, reports the New York Times. The role of the former inmates in fueling a new wave of Sunni jihad across the region is an unfortunate reminder of the breakdown of authority in Iraq since the United States departed in 2011. The prison breaks also reflect the surging demand for experienced fighters, which led to a concerted effort by militant groups, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, to seek them in the one place where they were held en masse — Iraq’s prison cells.

Afghanistan

The Afghan government has freed 65 prisoners — many linked to attacks that have killed American troops. The U.S. has called the men “dangerous” fighters who will likely kill coalition and Afghan forces. Some of those who were freed have been linked to the deaths of 32 U.S. and allied troops, have ties to the most violent terror groups in Afghanistan and were caught with weapons and materials for making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). U.S. officials have repeatedly objected to the prisoners’ release, sharing forensic and other evidence that implicates the men in attacks on American and Afghan troops and civilians. The U.S. military wants the men tried in Afghan courts.

Egypt

Russia’s proposed arms deal with Egypt and its endorsement of Egypt’s military ruler’s run for president are a signal to Arab rulers that, unlike the United States, Russia will back anti-terrorist strongmen who trample human rights, analysts say. Egypt’s army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was in Moscow to negotiate a $2 billion arms deal Thursday. The United States, Egypt’s primary supplier of military goods since a 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, scaled back some of its aid last year in response to al-Sisi’s ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Egypt’s military says it sided with millions of Egyptians who accused the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi of trying to implement a theocratic dictatorship.

Ukraine

Anti-government demonstrators in Ukraine’s capital ended their nearly three-month occupation of Kiev City Hall on Sunday as promised in exchange for the release of all jailed protesters. But tensions remained high as hundreds stayed outside the building, vowing to retake it if the government fails to drop all criminal charges against the protesters. Prospects for an easing of the standoff between the opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych dimmed further when a top opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, again turned down an offer to become prime minister in a coalition government. Yatsenyuk said he would not agree to take the post unless the president makes further concessions, including a constitutional reform that reduces presidential powers.

Mexico

Nogales has been the epicenter for cross-border drug tunnels for years. U.S. authorities have found 100 drug tunnels in that city since 1990, more than any other location along the 2,000-mile United States-Mexico border. But the tunnel found this week tops them all. At 481 feet, longer than 11/2 football fields, it is the longest ever discovered in Nogales. The tunnel extended from a house in Nogales, Sonora, to a house in Nogales, Ariz., and was being used to smuggle marijuana and other drugs into the U.S. Federal authorities found a half pound of heroin and 46 pounds of marijuana inside.

Venezuela

Shots rang out and tear gas clouded the air of a wealthy Caracas district on Saturday night as protests against the government entered into a fourth consecutive day. Rioters burned trash and threw stones at police in the city’s Plaza Altamira. In return, authorities used water cannons and tear gs to disperse the crowds numbering over 1,000. There is growing anger here at soaring inflation — which has grown to 56.3% over the past 12 months — and a murder rate that, is one of the world’s highest. The protests are the largest faced by President Nicolás Maduro since he came to power last year after the death of Hugo Chávez. Maduro said Sunday he was expelling three U.S. consular officials, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition forces to foment unrest as violent protests ran into a fifth straight night.

Earthquakes

In the wake a devastating ice storm, some in the Deep South got an unexpected jolt from a 4.1 magnitude earthquake Friday night. The tremor was centered about seven miles west-northwest from Edgefield, S.C. There haven’t been any reports of injuries or damage. Numerous social media reports suggest the shaking was felt in places such as Atlanta, and Roanoke, Va.

A powerful earthquake struck a sparsely populated area of China’s far western region of Xinjiang on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if it caused casualties or significant damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-6.8 quake was centered168 miles east-southeast of Hotan, a mountainous area, at a depth of 7.7 miles. It was followed by at least seven smaller quakes within the following half hour.

Volcanoes

A major volcanic eruption in Indonesia shrouded a large swath of the country’s most heavily populated island in ash on Friday, triggering the evacuation of more than 100,000 people and the closure of three international airports after killing two people. The ash cloud reached 18 miles into the atmosphere and fell to earth in towns and cities across the region, including Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, and even farther afield in Yogyakarta, where motorists switched on headlights in daylight. Kediri, a normally bustling town about 19 miles from the mountain, was largely deserted as residents stayed indoors to avoid the choking ash.

Weather

A major winter storm left hundreds of thousands in the southern USA without power Wednesday. At least 26 deaths across the South were blamed on the weather. More than 6,900 commercial flights were canceled Thursday, adding to the more than 4,000 that were scrubbed Wednesday. Around 1.2 million homes and business across the South saw their electricity knocked out as the storm advanced up the Interstate 95 corridor to the winter-weary Mid-Atlantic states, and more than a hundred million Americans were under some form of a winter storm warning, watch, or advisory. The National Weather Service reported up to 11 inches in the Bronx, 14 inches in Fairfield, Connecticut. The damage in some parts of the south was so devastating that  South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley compared it to the aftermath of a hurricane.

Another round of snow made its way through the Northeast and into New England on Saturday, dumping another heaping of snow on a region that continues to dig out from a previous storm. From 10 to 14 inches of snow fell in eastern Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island. Eight to 10 inches was recorded in Connecticut along its Rhode Island border. Local and state governments still struggling to recover from the Great Recession are facing new financial pressures this exceptionally stormy winter, with officials reporting increased spending on overtime, contractors and supplies.

The Great Lakes are on the cusp of a record for ice cover. The ice cover on the lakes increased from 79.7% to 88.4% just in the past week, putting the region close to the record of almost 95% set in February 1979. That’s bad news for the shipping industry, whose vessels can’t go anywhere when the ports are frozen solid. The winter of 2013-14 also is shaping up to be one of the five coldest in Michigan’s recorded history,

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