Signs of the Times (4/8/14)

‘God’s Not Dead’ Continues Impress Run at Box Office

Ending its third weekend on the big screen, God’s Not Dead continues to pack theaters across the country. The independent film produced by Freestyle Releasing earned $7.7 million over the weekend bringing its total to $33 million. According to Entertainment Weekly, the film about one Christian college student’s mission to defend his faith broke box office records by surpassing $11,000 per theater. The movie is about an atheist professor who attempts to convince students in a philosophy class that God does not exist. God’s Not Dead is on a long list of faith-based movies coming out of Hollywood this year.

Supreme Court Declines Appeal of Christian Photographers

The Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a commercial photography business in New Mexico that objects to taking pictures of same-sex wedding ceremonies. The justices on Monday left in place a state Supreme Court ruling that said Elane Photography violated a state anti-discrimination law when it refused to work for a same-sex couple who wanted pictures of their commitment ceremony. In August 2013, NM Supreme Court Justice Richard Bosson wrote it was the “price of citizenship” for one to “compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting views of others” in what he called a “multicultural, pluralistic society. Elane Photography co-owner Elaine Huguenin said taking the photos would violate her religious beliefs. She said she also has a right of artistic expression under the First Amendment that allows her to choose what pictures to take, or refrain from taking.

  • This ‘little’ compromise and ‘price of citizenship’ is far more significant than supposed, declaring that private businesses have no rights whether owned by Christians or unbelievers

Virginia Governor Vetoes Student Religious Freedom Bill

The Democratic governor of Virginia vetoed a bill on Friday that aimed to reinforce the religious rights of students, stating that it infringes on other student’s desires to be free from “coercive prayer and religious messaging” at school events. The text of the bill outlines that it codifies “the right of students to (i) voluntarily pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that students may engage in nonreligious activities or expression; (ii) organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious gatherings before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other activities and groups; and (iii) wear clothing, accessories, or jewelry that display religious messages or religious symbols in the same manner and to the same extent that other types of clothing, accessories, and jewelry are permitted.”

  • This is the clearest message yet that Christians are not allowed the same freedoms as everyone else

Abortion Activists Celebrate April as “Abortion Wellbeing Month”

The unintentional irony—tragedy, really—of the graphic that accompanied the celebration of April as “Abortion Wellbeing Month” is hard to miss: two hands grasping each another with “You are” written on one and “Not alone,” on the other. There is, however, a “you” who is actually alone: the unborn child. It’s the fourth annual celebration of “Abortion Wellbeing Month,” whose goalis for “those with personal abortion experiences and their allies can come together to honor and acknowledge the importance of wellbeing.”

  • In disregarding and stilling the voice of the smallest, most vulnerable member of the human race, abortion is the very opposite of ‘well-being’

Gallup Survey Suggests Obamacare Sign-Ups Not as high as White House Says

A major new Gallup survey suggests the ObamaCare sign-up numbers are not as soaring as the White House claims. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index measured the share of adults without health insurance. That shrank from 17.1 percent at the end of last year to 15.6 percent for the first three months of 2014. The decline of 1.5 percentage points would translate roughly to more than 3.5 million people gaining coverage. The administration says 7.1 million have signed up for subsidized private plans through new insurance markets. The administration’s numbers include people who switched their previous coverage, as well as people who have not paid their first month’s premium, and who would therefore still be uninsured.

The head of the Maryland Health Insurance Exchange testified Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that only 60,000 people have signed up for Obamacare through the state’s exchange – 13,000 less than the number of individuals reported to lose their insurance due to Obamacare. According to AP press accounts, 73,000 individuals in Maryland are going to lose their insurance because of the Affordable Care Act.

Obama Administration Exceeds 2 Million in Deportations

President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared himself a champion of immigration reform, including a legalization program for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. But among some immigration-reform supporters — historically Obama’s political allies — the president has been branded the opposite: “deporter in chief.” That reputation has been further cemented by a milestone being protested today by immigrant advocates in Arizona and around the country: Under Obama’s administration, the U.S. has exceeded 2 million deportations. The milestone is significant because it means Obama’s administration has deported more people than any other prior administrations.

What’s more, it took Obama’s administration just over five years to exceed the 2 million deportations that took place under all eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration, which set the previous record after ramping up deportations following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for immigration reform, said: “The fact (is) that you have a president who spoke movingly about the pain of family separation and the priority he would put on passing immigration reform as a candidate, and yet to date his legacy is 2 million deportations and no immigration reform legislation.”

Medicaid Enrollment Jumps by 3 Million

Three million people have enrolled in Medicaid since October, mainly in states expanding eligibility under Obamacare, according to federal data released Friday. A total of 61 million Americans were enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, in February. That’s up 5.2% since the third quarter of 2013, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The number of new enrollees, however, is only a small fraction of the 11.7 million who are eligible for the program. What’s the holdup? The federal exchange, healthcare.gov, has had technical problems transferring the files of those deemed eligible to the state Medicaid agencies for enrollment.

$6 Billion Goes Missing at State Department

In a special “management alert” made public Thursday, the State Department’s Inspector General Steve Linick warned “significant financial risk and a lack of internal control at the department has led to billions of unaccounted dollars over the last six years. The alert was just the latest example of the federal government’s continued struggle with oversight over its outside contractors. The lack of oversight “exposes the department to significant financial risk,” the auditor said. “It creates conditions conducive to fraud, as corrupt individuals may attempt to conceal evidence of illicit behavior by omitting key documents from the contract file. It impairs the ability of the Department to take effective and timely action to protect its interests, and, in tum, those of taxpayers.” In the memo, the IG detailed “repeated examples of poor contract file administration.” For instance, a recent investigation of the closeout process for contracts supporting the mission in Iraq, showed that auditors couldn’t find 33 of the 115 contract files totaling about $2.1 billion. Of the remaining 82 files, auditors said 48 contained insufficient documents required by federal law.

  • Why do people keep wanting to cede more control of their lives to the government when it is historically inept, inefficient and often fraudulent?

Economic News

The labor market reached a milestone last month. Private-sector employment crept past its all-time high in January 2008 when the Great Recession was a month old. But economists weren’t celebrating. “I think the fact that it took five years (since the recovery began in June 2009) to get back to where we started really speaks to how drawn-out this recovery has been,” says economist Paul Edelstein of IHS Global Insight. Total employment remains 437,000 jobs short of its peak because federal, state and local governments employ in excess of half a million fewer workers than in January 2008.

America’s retirement system has entered a danger zone and is breaking down, according to CBS News, which notes that roughly half of U.S. families don’t have a single dime set aside for retirement. While millions of Americans put part of their income into an employer-sponsored 401(k), IRA or other retirement account, millions more find it hard or impossible to save because of their precarious situations — unemployment, stagnant income, impossible health costs or other factors.

In big cities across the country, home buyers are growing increasingly frustrated as rising home prices and stiff competition shut them out of the market. In cities like Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Diego, prices have climbed by as much as 20% or more in the past year, well above the national average of 13%, according to Case Shiller. Plus mortgage rates are up by nearly a point to 4.3%, so borrowers today are paying 25% more than they would have a year ago.

Gasoline prices are making their annual spring climb. Nationally, gasoline averages $3.55 a gallon, up from a 2013 low of about $3.18. But in California – now averaging $4.01 a gallon after a 35-cent jump in wholesale prices since mid-March – prices could hit up to $4.25 within days. Nationally, 2014 gas prices will likely top at about $3.65 a gallon within the next few weeks. Ethanol, blended into gasoline, is also up nearly 60% year-to-date on higher corn and rail shipping costs.

Persecution Watch

A Three-Self Patriotic Movement church in China’s coastal Zhejiang province is facing demolition after refusing to remove the cross that tops the seven-story building. When the Party secretary Xia Baolong visited the local areas, he found the cross on top of the church very conspicuous. So he ordered that it be demolished. China Aid previously reported that other churches in Zhejiang had crosses forcibly removed from their buildings. The church is home to “several” thousand believers. The church cost believers approximately 30 million yuan (U.S. $4.8 million) to build. As 5,000 Christians from the Wenzhou area, including the many members of Sanjiang Church, arrived to help protect the church on Thursday. In response, authorities reportedly dispatched around 1,000 officers to the church. At this time, there was been no report of any substantial incidents occurring after officers arrived at the church.

Middle East

The crumbling negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority showed few signs of flickering back to life over the weekend, as PA Deputy Minister for Prisoner Affairs Ziad Abu Ein threatened protests and hunger strikes by Palestinian inmates in Israeli jails. Protests outside Ofer Prison near Ramallah included violent clashes on Friday and riots broke out in several Palestinian cities. Marathon talks held through Sunday between Israeli and PA officials failed to arrive at a compromise which would extend the talks beyond their 30 April deadline.

Ukraine

Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators who have seized government buildings in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, urged President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday to send troops to the region as a peacekeeping force, and they demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. The renewed unrest in eastern Ukraine, which flared on Sunday with coordinated demonstrations by thousands of pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, reignited fears in Kiev and the West about Russian military action a little more than a month after Russian forces occupied Crimea. Russia warned Tuesday that any use of force in Ukraine’s eastern region could lead to civil war, as Kiev seeks to regain control after pro-Moscow uprisings in three cities. Ukrainian troops expelled pro-Russian demonstrators from an administration building on Tuesday, as the interim government in Kiev sought to tamp down unrest that some fear might lead to a Russian military invasion.

Russia

Russians are facing a new wave of repressive measures in a Kremlin bid to bolster domestic control after its annexation of Ukraine’s breakaway Crimea, say human rights activists. Several bills proposed by lawmakers here this week seek to prevent the kind of street demonstrations that gripped Ukraine’s Kiev earlier this winter, leading to the ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Under current laws, Russians need permission from city authorities to hold a public demonstration and are forbidden from holding unauthorized rallies. If passed, the new bill would introduce fines of more than $28,500 for repeat offenders and jail terms of up to five years. In another proposal in the Duma, police would be allowed to use lethal force against civilian protesters.

India

On Monday the first wave of the country’s 814 million eligible voters cast their ballots as the largest election in world history gets underway. Any time the world’s most populous democracy goes to the polls, it’s a momentous undertaking. But with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepping aside after a decade in charge, analysts say voting will take on an even greater significance this time around, with the country potentially poised on the cusp of a new political era. Amid widespread public concern over corruption, rising inflation and slowing economic growth, voters will be faced with a choice between the young scion of India’s most powerful political dynasty, and a populist, business-minded Hindu nationalist who is described as at once India’s most popular and most divisive politician. The outcome of the election, which will be held in stages over five weeks — employing 11 million polling and security personnel and absorbing an estimated $5 billion in campaigning costs — may have stark ramifications for India’s identity at home and abroad.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s presidential election closed on Saturday amid relief that attacks by Taliban fighters were fewer than feared for a vote that will bring the first-ever democratic transfer of power in a country plagued by conflict for decades. Turnout was seven million out of 12 million eligible voters, or about 58 percent, according to preliminary estimates. It will take six weeks for results to come in from across Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and a final result to be declared in the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai. This could be the beginning of a potentially dangerous period for Afghanistan at a time when the war-ravaged country desperately needs a leader to stem rising violence as foreign troops prepare to leave. One of the eight candidates will have to score over 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with his nearest rival.

Central African Republic

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned on Saturday that French and African soldiers in Central African Republic were “overwhelmed” by a “state of anarchy,” a day after Chadian troops began withdrawing from the peacekeeping mission. The U.N. Security Council is due to approve next week a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force for the former French colony, which will take over authority from African Union troops in an attempt to restore order to the impoverished country. But that force is not expected to arrive until September, stoking fears of a security vacuum, as the interim government struggles to control intercommunal violence that has killed more than 2,000 people since December. Ban appealed for more help and said the international community was at risk of repeating the mistakes of the 1994 Rwanda genocide where some 800,000 died.

Nigeria

Islamist militants attacked a remote town in northeast Nigeria’s Yobe state on Saturday, killing 17 people including five who were worshipping at a mosque. Dozens of gunmen surrounded the village of Buni Gari, shooting residents and setting shops and houses ablaze. Boko Haram militants, fighting for an Islamic state in Nigeria, have in the past year broadened the range of their targets beyond security forces, government officials and Christians to include schoolchildren and other civilians, sometimes massacring whole villages and abducting girls. They regard all who do not subscribe to their austere, al-Qaeda inspired brand of Islam, whether Christian or Muslim.

Volcanoes

Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano has spewed a 6-mile column of ash after a powerful, five-minute explosion that shot pyroclastic material onto its northern and northwestern flanks. Ecuador’s geophysics institute said Friday’s blast occurred at 6:10 p.m. local time and was followed by a second, four-minute explosion and five lesser tremors. The 16,480-foot volcano, nearly 90 miles south of Quito, revived on Feb. 1, with eruptions that affected a third of Ecuador’s provinces and temporarily closed a regional airport. Tungurahua has been erupting sporadically since 1999.

Weather

A severe storm system that pounded the central U.S. Thursday, spawning as many as 11 tornadoes, slowly moved to the East Coast on Friday. The storms left tens of thousands without power Friday morning, and heavy rain caused widespread flooding. In under four hours, 11 tornadoes had spawned on Thursday — five in Texas, four in Missouri and two in Illinois. Heavy rain triggered major flash flooding in parts of the South Sunday night into Monday. Hardest hit was parts of northern Alabama, including the Birmingham metro area, where evacuations and high-water rescues were prompted. Early Monday morning, a tornado appears to have touched down in Covington County, Miss. Damage was confirmed to numerous homes and mobile homes northeast of Collins, Miss. with eight confirmed injuries. A church south of Taylorsville, Miss. sustained heavy damage and roads were blocked by trees and debris.

Severe thunderstorms dumped heavy rains across the Southeast on Monday and caused flash flooding in central Alabama, where crews in small boats and military trucks had to rescue dozens of people from their homes and cars. In Mississippi, a 9-year-old girl was swept away and killed after the storms dropped nearly seven inches of rain over the last two days. About two dozen residents of a mobile home park in Pelham had to be rescued from floodwaters that were nearly chest-high. Rescue workers also helped several people and pets from an apartment complex in Homewood, where water was up to the windows of some cars. Nearly 4.4 inches of rain fell at the Birmingham airport in 24 hours.

At least 14 people are dead in the Solomon Islands after torrential rain from a slow moving tropical cyclone caused rivers to burst their banks and send a torrent of water rushing downstream into low-lying, highly populated areas. Water from the Matanikau River destroyed bridges, homes and other infrastructure as it inundated the downtown area of the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara. Homes and bodies could be seen floating amongst the debris carried away by the floods. The river burst its banks rather unexpectedly, despite days of heavy rain, catching people off guard in the city of some 70,000 people. Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office head Loti Yates told the New Zealand Herald that the floods were unprecedented. “This is by far the worst flooding I have witnessed since heading this organization—the scale and magnitude is overwhelming,” Yates told the Herald.

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