Signs of the Times (4/12/14)

Bible Clubs Growing in Public Schools

In the small town of New Bethlehem, PA, over half the student body of Redbank Valley High School meet once a week for Bible club. The club is overseen by Joe Harmon, who recently traveled to Boston, where churches, parents and students asked if the two men could share suggestions on how to create and sustain such wildly successful Bible clubs throughout the Boston area. Some 500 Bostonians gathered at a largely Hispanic church in the Chelsea area to take in what the Pennsylvanians had to share. Harmon said some resistant school administrations may just need a bit of gentle ‘schooling’ about what the law says they must allow. “These students here in Boston and students across America have the right to have Bible clubs,” he stated.

Obama Attorneys: Cross atop Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial ‘Appropriate’

The United States will defend against efforts to remove a giant cross atop a war memorial in Southern California over claims it violates the constitutional separation of church and state, according to a petition filed this week with the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s the latest legal salvo in the decades-long battle over the cross on the memorial at Mount Soledad in San Diego. The legal battle has pitted veterans and caretakers of the memorial against the city and those who say it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “The United States remains fully committed to preserving the Mount Soledad cross as an appropriate memorial to our nation’s veterans,” the Justice Department petition said.

  • A surprising move by the Obama administration. Oh yeah, mid-term elections coming up and the Democrats are worried about the negative impact of Obamacare

Muslim Arrested in Connecticut in Drone Bomb Plot

A Muslim was arrested Monday for a bomb plot using a drone-like plane to crash into a Connecticut school (Yale, perhaps?) and a Federal building. For reasons that only the Obama administration can understand, El Mehdi Semlali Fahti does not face federal terrorism charges at this time. Freedom Outpost asks, “If bombing a school and a government building isn’t terror, then what is?” Fahti was still in this country seven years after his student visa expired, and he flunked out of Virginia International University. He lied about being a “refugee.” “Christians are being slaughtered en masse in Muslim countries, and they can’t get refugee status. Apostates are being slaughtered under the sharia, but they can’t get refugee status. It’s outrageous. Our immigration policies aid and abet our enemies. America is without the very thing that made her the exceptional nation that she was: her moral compass,” Freedom Outpost concludes.

International Panel of Scientists Say Climate Change Not Due to Humans

A new report from the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), written by an international collection of scientists and published by the conservative Heartland Institute, claims a recent U.N. report on climate change is just “smoke and mirrors,” declaring that humanity’s impact on climate is not causing substantial harm to the Earth. The Heartland Institute says more than 30 scientists served as authors and reviewers for the new report, which it claims cites more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies supporting the belief that climate change is not detrimental to the biosphere. The panel of scientists says human impact on the global climate is small, changing temperatures are within a historic scope of temperature. Heartland Institute says the scientific community is under tremendous financial and peer pressure to reach the conclusion that global industry is damaging the environment. “Ethical standards have been lowered, peer review has been corrupted, and we can’t trust peers in our most prestigious journals anymore,” Joe Bast, President and CEO of Heartland Institute, told Fox News.

Obamacare Surprise: No Insurance Available Now Anywhere

There is yet another ObamaCare surprise waiting for consumers: from now until the next open enrollment at the end of this year, most people will simply not be able to buy any health insurance at all, even outside the exchanges. That means that with few exceptions, tens of millions of people will be locked out of the health insurance market for the rest of this year. Only about one in four subsidy-eligible people signed up for health insurance,” says Robert Laszewski of Health Policy Associates. “That means about 13 million subsidy-eligible people have not yet signed up for health insurance.” “In all likelihood,” says Laszewski, “we’ve only signed up somewhere between one in five and one in seven people who were uninsured prior to the start of ObamaCare.” The reason sales of health insurance were crammed into short enrollment periods was so insurance companies would have some certainty about who would be in the risk pool, allowing them to set their rates accordingly. Although those who failed to buy insurance during the enrollment period could face a government penalty, most will not have to pay that penalty until they do their taxes next year.

Study Finds Sicklier Enrollees in Obamacare

People who signed up early for insurance through the new marketplaces were more likely to be prescribed drugs to treat pain, depression and H.I.V., according to a new study that provides a much-anticipated look at the population that signed up for coverage under the new health care law. The health of those who enrolled in new coverage is being closely watched because many observers have questioned whether the new marketplaces would attract a large share of sick people, which could lead to higher premiums and ultimately doom the new law. The study, released Wednesday by the major pharmacy-benefits manager Express Scripts, suggests that early enrollees face more serious health problems and are older than those covered by their employers. The study also showed a higher use of specialty drugs, which are often used to treat diseases like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis; the use of such drugs could hint at more costly medical problems.

Some Doctors Make Millions off of Medicare

Some doctors are making millions of dollars off of Medicare, with a handful collecting multi-million payments annually. One ophthalmologist from West Palm Beach, Fla., collected nearly $21 million, while a cardiologist from Ocala, Fla., received $18 million in 2012. Seven doctors pulled in more than $10 million in payments, while nearly 4,000 are Medicare millionaires. The doctors’ payments were part of an unprecedented data release, which covers 880,000 physicians, therapists, labs and other medical facilities. Medicare paid providers a total of $77 billion in 2012 to care for more than 50 million of the nation’s elderly and disabled, according to federal statistics released Wednesday. A small share of doctors account for a large percentage of payments. The top 2% of physicians collected nearly 25% of Medicare payments. Ophthalmologists, cardiologists and blood cancer doctors were the most represented among this group, both in terms of numbers and payments from Medicare. About 16% of the highest-compensated doctors were in Florida, with 12% in California and 9% in Texas.

EPA Coal Rules Leaving U.S. Vulnerable to Blackouts

Facing the Obama administration’s so-called “war on coal,” some utility officials are warning that fewer coal-fired power plants could leave the U.S. power system vulnerable to blackouts in the near future. The officials warn that intense summer heat or extreme winter cold could soon be too much for the system to handle. Pro-coal advocates say the administration’s focus on its environmental agenda challenges the reliability of the nation’s power grid. In response, the EPA says government studies indicate there will be more than enough electricity-generating capacity to meet the nation’s needs.

40% of IRS Callers Can’t Get Through

Got a question for the Internal Revenue Service? Keep calling, and be prepared to wait. With the April 15 tax filing deadline around the corner, an estimated 18 million callers seeking help from the IRS won’t be able to reach a real person this year. That’s about 40% of all tax season callers, according to IRS data. Those that manage to get a person, might have had to wait as long as 25 minutes. And lines at walk-in taxpayer assistance centers are also long; some have reported 90-minute waits. The IRS claims the problem is due to budget cuts. The IRS budget is $850 million slimmer than it was in 2010. And there are 6 million to 8 million additional taxpayers since then.

17 of 19 Paid Tax Preparers Make Mistakes

Tax preparers got the results of an audit from the Government Accountability Office on Tuesday. The GAO’s report cited a small undercover study of 19 paid preparers in February, chosen randomly in states that do not regulate tax preparers. The findings: Seventeen of 19 preparers made mistakes; Errors ranged from giving the taxpayer refunds $52 less than due to a refund of $3,718 more than due. Unfortunately, the report didn’t come as a surprise. The GAO surveyed taxpayer errors from 2006 through 2009 and found that tax returns prepared by preparers had a higher estimated percent of errors — 60% — than self-prepared returns —50%.

Economic News

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week to its lowest level in seven years, beating economists’ estimates and reflecting an improved outlook for the job market. For the week ending April 5, the seasonally adjusted initial claims fell 32,000 from the previous week to 300,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The last time the number dipped below 300,000 was in May 12, 2007.

Stocks closed sharply lower for a second straight day Friday as once high-flying biotech and Internet shares tumbled again, sending the Nasdaq composite index back below 4000 for the first time since Feb. 3. Investors remain jittery following Thursday’s big sell-off that saw the Nasdaq drop 3.1%, its worst plunge since November 2011 The Nasdaq is now down 8.2% from its 2014 high of 4,357.97 set on March 5 and is 4.2% lower for the year. The S&P 500 has fallen 4% from its record high close of April 2 and is 1.8% lower for the year. The Dow has retreated 3.3% from its Dec. 31 record close of 16,576.66. Global markets also skidded Friday, with a key Japan index tumbling 2.4% and major European indexes sliding 1% or more. The steep and sudden market drop has dented optimism in Wall Street and prompted nervous investors to lighten up on stocks and shift their money into less volatile assets, such as U.S. government bonds.

Persecution Watch

A couple from Pakistan’s Christian minority was sentenced to death April 4 for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages, bringing the number of Christians on death row to four, reports Baptist Press. The sentence for Shafqat Emmanuel and Shugufta Emmanuel in Pakistan’s Punjab province came eight days after a court in Lahore sentenced Sawan Masih to death for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad. The case against Masih, a street sweeper, stemmed from an alleged drunken conversation with a Muslim friend that sparked an outbreak of violence in Lahore’s Joseph Colony. The March 2013 flare-up left 180 Christian-owned homes and shops destroyed; an anti-terrorism court subsequently freed 133 Muslim suspects in spite of video evidence against them. Also on death row: Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five. Imprisoned since 2009, Bibi was convicted after a dispute with local Muslim women who accused her of insulting Muhammad. Pakistan’s small Christian community makes up less than 3 percent of the country’s 180 million people, with less than 1 percent considered evangelical/followers of Christ.

A new sharia penal code that includes archaic Islamic penalties such as flogging and stoning to death – some of which will be applied to non-Muslims – is being rolled out in Brunei this month. The laws, which will be introduced in three phases over the next two years, have been criticized both in and outside of Brunei. In a letter to the Sultan of Brunei, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said that the new penal code violates international human rights standards. It raised concerns about the imposition of the death penalty and other penalties that constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; discrimination against women; and violation of the rights to religious freedom, freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.

Middle East

US Secretary of State John Kerry set off a firestorm of media attention on Tuesday when, during testimony before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, he appeared to place the primary blame for the breakdown in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on Israeli building in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki gave a statement to the press almost immediately following the testimony, declaring that “as has been the case throughout this impasse, today Secretary Kerry was again crystal clear that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game. However, the majority of the world’s media outlets ignored this and emphasized the apparent assignment of blame to Israel by Kerry, prompting a fierce reaction by Israeli leaders who vowed not to be intimidated into making unreasonable concessions.

Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists refused Thursday to surrender control of government offices in eastern Ukraine cities despite a deadline to do so as Russia maintained high levels of military on the border and threatened to shut gas deliveries to Europe. NATO made public to reporters satellite photographs that showed Russia has not removed any of the 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian frontier it said it would reduce, and that those forces are now sharing space with lines of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft. “It has the resources to be able to move quickly into Ukraine if it was ordered to do so,” NATO Brigadier Gary Deakin said of the Russian forces stationed at more than 100 sites near the Ukraine border. Several dozen armed men seized a police station in a city in eastern Ukraine and hoisted the Russian flag above the building Saturday as tensions in the country’s Russian-speaking regions intensify.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove continued to play up the idea of an imminent Russian invasion of eastern Europe, saying the alliance is preparing “countermoves” in the region that may include US ground troops deploying. Gen. Breedlove said the plan right now is for a buildup of land, air, and naval assets in the region to “build assurance for our easternmost allies,” and that it would mean troops from several nations, including potentially the US, heading to “front-line states.”

Russia

President Vladimir Putin has written to European leaders, warning that their gas supplies could take a hit unless Ukraine starts making regular payments for gas and forks over $2.2 billion in overdue bills. Russia supplies roughly 30% of Europe’s gas needs, and half of that comes through Ukrainian pipelines. Any disruption in supplies to Ukraine could create problems for several European countries. Ukraine’s unpaid gas bills are strengthening Russia’s hand before talks next week with the U.S. and Europe on resolving the crisis. Next week’s talks are expected to revolve around Russia’s political and military moves against Ukraine — including its annexation of Crimea — but Ukraine’s growing gas debts give Putin a valuable bargaining chip.

Iraq

Car bombs hit several mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and a town south of the Iraqi capital on Wednesday, killing at least 24 people and wounding dozens, officials said, the latest bout of violence ahead of the country’s first parliament elections since the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal. The bombings bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-inspired group and other Sunni insurgents, who frequently use suicide and car bombs to target public areas and government buildings in their bid to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government.

Iran

The Obama administration’s assurances to the American people that, “Iran’s oil exports will remain steady at their current level of around 1 million barrels per day,” and “We will not allow Iran’s exports to increase,” are being wholly contradicted by reality, and should be retracted and revised, according to United Against Nuclear Iran. In actuality, Iran’s oil exports have more than doubled, up 117% since October. While Iran is enjoying this economic windfall, it has not dismantled a single centrifuge. In fact, the administration acknowledged this week that the nuclear “concessions” Iran has made under the interim agreement have extended its nuclear breakout time by only two weeks.

At a time when the West would like to think its negotiating partner is adopting a new, softer tone, Iran’s executions have only increased over the past year, according to a report by the Human Rights and Democracy Report. The report, put out by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK, suggests the number of executions and the country’s horrific human rights record speak to an unchanging and even emboldened Iranian regime. Since Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who ran for office as a moderate, took office last August, the number of executions has actually increased. More than 537 executions have taken place since his election, with nearly 200 coming this year.

Italy

The Italian navy said it rescued more than 1,000 migrants from several overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean between Tuesday and Wednesday morning. The migrants, who included women and children, had set off from the North African coast and were not equipped with life jackets, the navy said. Italy is a major gateway into Europe for migrants who come by sea from North Africa in hope of reaching EU soil. Some of the migrants are from African nations, particularly Eritrea and Somalia, while others have fled war-torn Syria, officials say. Shipwrecks off the shores of Sicily and the tiny island of Lampedusa are common, thanks to the frequent use of overcrowded and barely seaworthy vessels.

Central African Republic

The U.N. Security Council on Thursday unanimously approved the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping force for the Central African Republic, where competing militias have been fighting for months. The council approved the deployment of 11,800 peacekeepers to the country, where 6,500 African-led peacekeeping forces and about 2,000 French troops already have been operating. Additionally, the European Union is planning to deploy up to 1,000 troops. The Central African Republic, a former French colony, was plunged into chaos last year after a coalition of mostly Muslim rebels, known as Seleka, ousted President Francois Bozize. They have since been forced out of power, but Christian and Muslim militias continue to fight for control.

Earthquakes

A 6.1-magnitude earthquake rattled Nicaragua near the Pacific coast on Thursday, damaging more than 100 homes and knocking out power as frightened locals fled into the streets. At least 23 people were injured by falling ceilings, beams and walls in the town of Nagarote, 31 miles northwest of the capital of Managua. Landslides blocked two highways south of the capital. Less than 24 hours after the 6.1-magnitude earthquake hit Nicaragua, a second earthquake shook the country Friday. The 6.6-magnitude quake struck near the city of Granada at 3:29 p.m. local time.

The new tremor, centered 34 miles south of the capital city of Managua, surprised people at restaurants and supermarkets, where the shelves swayed strongly, throwing many products to the ground. It also disrupted the water service in many towns around the capital, where people continued to feel aftershocks as the government deployed soldiers and police officers to oversee emergency response. Firefighters paid visits to villages south of Managua and reported seeing cracking in the walls of houses and other buildings.

A powerful earthquake has struck off the South Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries. The U.S. Geological Survey said the magnitude-7.3 earthquake was located 38 miles southwest of the town of Panguna on Bougainville Island. It struck at a depth of 31 miles. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said there was no threat of a destructive widespread tsunami. Earthquakes are common in Papua New Guinea. The country lies on the “Ring of Fire” — an arc of earthquake and volcanic activity that stretches around the Pacific Rim.

Weather

The threat of severe weather is ramping up this weekend as a new storm system takes shape in the nation’s midsection. On the cold side of this same system, snow is expected in the Rockies and the adjacent Plains. Isolated severe storms are possible Saturday from parts of southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois southwestward through Iowa to southeast Nebraska, northwest Missouri and Kansas. Large hail and localized damaging wind gusts will be the primary concerns. On Sunday, a more widespread area of severe storms is expected from the mid-Mississippi Valley to the southern Plains. Within this larger swath, the threat of severe weather will be enhanced from north-central and northeast Texas to the eastern half of Oklahoma, western Arkansas, southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas. Very large hail, damaging wind gusts and some tornadoes are possible.

Powerful Tropical Cyclone Ita (pronounced “EYE-tuh”) made landfall in northeast Australia near Cape Flattery in the Queensland state late Friday night, local time. Ita made landfall with 10-minute average sustained winds around 105 mph. Roof damage was reported to the James Cook Museum in Cooktown, as well as to several homes in the town. Tropical cyclones are not uncommon in Australia. The Australia Bureau of Meteorology says that the season typically runs from November through April.

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