Signs of the Times (5/15/14)

Christian Legal Alliance Gains Ground

The Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been gaining attention recently for defending the views of conservative Christians, including the recent case involving Christian prayer at government meetings. Alliance Defending Freedom has a $40 million yearly endowment with more than 40 lawyers on its payroll. The group represents hundreds of cases annually, pro bono. The group won the New York case to permit prayer at government meetings; they now look to another landmark case as Conestoga Wood Specialties (that ADF’s client) and Hobby Lobby challenge the Affordable Care Act’s demand for employers to supply abortion-inducing birth control, such as the morning after pill, to employees. Another case that the ADF is backing is the defense of marriage restrictions in Virginia. The fight is currently underway in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Court Circuit in Richmond, Va. ADF lawyers are beginning to gain ground in what was previously a largely secular-dominated court system by using the Constitution to defend religious ideals.

Pro-Life Priests Take Obamacare Fight to Court

Pro-life priests should not be forced to cooperate with a government scheme to expand contraceptive coverage, Priests for Life attorneys argued Thursday before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. “This is a battle of biblical proportions,” Fr. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, said after the arguments. “We will obey God rather than man.” Priests for Life, a nonprofit with about 50 employees, sued the government last year over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to over health insurance coverage for contraceptive and abortifacient drugs. Priests for Life and other faith-based nonprofits have received preliminary injunctions against the mandate, but Thursday’s proceeding marked the first time an appeals court has heard the merits of one of those cases. Pavone and Robert Muise, an American Freedom Law Center attorney who argued the case, both said they were pleased with the hearing. The judges likely will not issue a decision until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the cases of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, two for-profit business that appeared before the high court in March to argue they shouldn’t be forced to comply with the mandate.

Google, Yahoo Ban Pro-Life Ads

Search engine giants Google and Yahoo have removed pro-life ads promoting the services of Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC) across the nation. According to World Magazine NARAL Pro-Choice America and UltraViolet, NARAL and UltraViolet argue the CPC ads are “deceptive” and violate the truth in advertising policies of both Google and Yahoo as the target women seeking an abortion. Susan Michelle Tyrell, a pro-life advocate who was rescued by Catholic nuns who took her to an orphanage in Bethlehem, asserts that the tactics of the abortion industry often lure women to make decisions that go against their conscience and the will of God. “The problem that Google, Yahoo, and others that acquiesce to such pressure, they show their biases to one side of the issue,” said Tyrell. “The fact remains that abortion clinics lure unsuspecting, frightened women through their doors daily with the promise of help in time of crisis.”

Missouri Lawmakers Approve Three-Day Abortion Waiting Period

Missouri lawmakers gave final approval to a measure that requires a woman to wait 72 hours from her initial doctor’s visit before she gets an abortion. The Republican-controlled House voted 111-39 in favor of the legislation late Wednesday. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has not said whether he’ll sign it. If the governor signs the bill into law, it will triple the time a woman has to wait to have an abortion in the state.

36,000 Immigrant Felons Released Last Year

While the Obama Administration has been peddling the story that its immigration policy is focused on getting the worst criminal immigrants deported, ICE actually released more than 36,000 convicted criminal aliens last year, including murderers, rapists and drunk drivers, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security document obtained by the Center for Immigration Studies. Last year, it was widely reported that ICE, part of the DHS, had released 622 immigrants with multiple felony convictions. The president blamed that release on the sequester cuts. The reality is almost 50 times that many criminals, who had been involved in deportation hearings, were released. Between them, the 36,007 immigrants had nearly 88,000 convictions. According to the document, included among the immigrants’ 87,818 crimes were 15,635 cases of drunken driving, 9,187 drug infractions, 426 sexual assaults, 303 kidnappings, 193 homicides, 1,317 domestic violence convictions and 1,075 aggravated assaults.

Millions of Mentally Ill Untreated by Healthcare System

More than half a million Americans with serious mental illness are falling through the cracks of a system in tatters, a USA TODAY special report shows. Nearly 40% of adults with “severe” mental illness — such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — received no treatment in the previous year, according to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Among adults with any mental illness, 60% were untreated. The mentally ill who have nowhere to go and find little sympathy from those around them often land hard in emergency rooms, county jails and city streets. The lucky ones find homes with family. The unlucky ones show up in the morgue. States looking to save money have pared away both the community mental health services designed to keep people healthy, as well as the hospital care needed to help them heal after a crisis. Tight budgets during the recession forced some of the most devastating cuts in recent memory, says Robert Glover, executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. States cut $5 billion in mental health services from 2009 to 2012. In the same period, the country eliminated at least 4,500 public psychiatric hospital beds — nearly 10% of the total supply, he says.

Measles Vaccine Kills Cancer in Landmark Study

Mayo Clinic researchers announced a landmark study where a massive dose of the measles vaccine, enough to inoculate ten million people, wiped out a Minnesota woman’s incurable blood cancer. The Mayo Clinic conducted the clinical trial last year using virotherapy. The method discovered the measles virus wiped out multiple myeloma cancer calls. Researchers engineered the measles virus (MV-NIS) in a single intravenous dose, making it selectively toxic to cancer cells. Stacy Erholtz, 49, of Pequot Lakes, was one of two patients in the study who received the dose last year, and after ten years with multiple myeloma has been clear of the disease for over six months. Mayo researchers are also testing the measles virus’s effectiveness at fighting ovarian, brain, head and neck cancers and mesothelioma. They are also developing other viruses that seem to have potential to kill cancer cells.

Measles Cases at 18-Year High

An outbreak of measles in Ohio has infected 68 people, adding to what is already an 18-year high of measles cases in the United States. The outbreak in Ohio began with unvaccinated travelers to the Philippines, the state’s Department of Health said Monday. Philippines is experiencing a very large measles outbreak; at least 20,000 confirmed and suspected cases have been reported in the Asian nation. California, another state also reporting a high number of measles cases this year, said its outbreak also resulted from people visiting the Philippines. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on April 24 found 129 cases of measles in the United States between January 1 and April 18. That’s the highest number of cases recorded for the period since 1996. The contagious infectious disease was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000.

870 Million of World’s Poor get No Assistance

Most of the world’s poorest people still have no protection against economic shocks or other crises despite a rapid expansion of welfare programs in recent years. The World Bank said Tuesday that more than 70% of people living on less than $1.25 a day are still not covered by social safety nets such as free school meals, state pensions or public works programs. That means 870 million people living in extreme poverty in the developing world have nothing to fall back on if disaster strikes. Over one billion people in the developing world now receive some form of social assistance, and that includes 345 million — or about 30% — of those living in extreme poverty. Low- and middle-income countries spent only 1.6% of their gross domestic product on social safety nets last year, or just $337 billion.

More Insured, but the Choices Are Narrowing

In the midst of all the turmoil in health care these days, one thing is becoming clear: No matter what kind of health plan consumers choose, they will find fewer doctors and hospitals in their network — or pay much more for the privilege of going to any provider they want, notes the New York Times. These so-called narrow networks, featuring limited groups of providers, have made a big entrance on the newly created state insurance exchanges, where they are a common feature in many of the plans. While the sizes of the networks vary considerably, many plans now exclude at least some large hospitals or doctors’ groups. Smaller networks are also becoming more common in health care coverage offered by employers and in private Medicare Advantage plans. Insurers, ranging from national behemoths like WellPoint, UnitedHealth and Aetna to much smaller local carriers, are fully embracing the idea, saying narrower networks are essential to controlling costs and managing care. But while there is evidence that consumers are willing to sacrifice some choice in favor of lower prices, many critics are concerned that insurers will limit access to specialists or certain hospitals

Internet Neutrality — What’s at Stake?

The future of the Internet gets hotly debated Thursday at the Federal Communication Commission. In what is the agency’s most anticipated meeting in recent memory, the commission takes up the issue of network neutrality. Protests against so-called “fast lanes” are planned, as is a rally in favor of strong net neutrality rules. Also called open Internet, net neutrality is the principle that all legal content on the Internet is treated equally. The focus on net neutrality comes after a federal court in January threw out the FCC’s existing rules. And the draft of new rules that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gave to commissioners three weeks ago has divided the body — and caused a furor. His initial proposal allowed fast lanes to consumers’ homes, the so-called “last mile,” that content providers such as Netflix can purchase as long as the same opportunities are available to others on “commercially reasonable” terms. After an outcry — and 35,000 public comments on the issue — Wheeler revised the rules to ban certain types of fast lanes and to give the agency the power to review any deals that gave priority to some entities.

Economic News

The number of people filing for jobless claims last week fell to the lowest level in seven years as the labor market continues to show signs of improvement. The Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 297,000 for the week ended May 10. That was the lowest level since May 12, 2007. Jobless claims are back to pre-recession levels after the financial crisis of 2008-2009 sent unemployment soaring and forced many Americans to seek unemployment benefits.

Retail sales grew just 0.1% in April, disappointing forecasters who expected more of an early spring pick-up. Clothing stores’ sales rose 1.8% and health and personal care stores were up 0.6%. Gasoline stations’ sales increased 0.8%.Electronics and appliance stores saw a 2.3% decline from March and food and drinking establishments registered a drop of 0.9%.

Consumer prices in April crept up by the largest percentage since last summer, driven by higher costs for gasoline, shelter and food. The consumer price index increased 0.3% after rising 0.2% in March, the Labor Department said Thursday. April’s increase was the largest one-month jump since last June, when the CPI also rose 0.3%. Prices are up 2% over the past 12 months as inflation remains relatively mild.

Hundreds of fast food workers walked off their jobs in dozens of U.S. cities on Thursday as sympathetic protesters in several dozen countries joined in a united call for wages of $15 an hour and the right to form a union. No violence was reported early Thursday. Restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC are being targeted. The strike of the $200 billion fast-food industry comes at a time of intense competition and is aimed at directing consumer attention to the low wages of most fast-food workers. The one-day campaign continues protests launched 18 months ago.

Women are almost twice as likely as men to live below the poverty line during retirement, with single and minority women struggling the most. On average, women 65 years and older rely on a median income of around $16,000 a year — roughly $11,000 less than men of the same age, according to a Congressional analysis of Census data. And many elderly women rely exclusively on Social Security benefits. Women earn — and save — less over their lifetimes than men, leaving them with a smaller nest egg. And because they tend to live longer, that savings has to last longer, too.

Eurozone/Foreign Economies

European economic growth was weaker than expected in the first three months of 2014, but still managed to outpace the U.S. for the first time in three years. Gross domestic product across the 18 countries in the Eurozone grew at an annual pace of 0.9% in the first quarter, the European Union’s statistical office said Thursday. That compares with growth of 0.1% in the U.S. in the first quarter, when harsh winter weather was blamed for depressing exports, housing and business investment.

Russia’s economy slowed sharply in the first three months of 2014 as the Ukraine crisis slammed business confidence and investment. Official Russian statistics showed gross domestic product grew by an annual rate of 0.9% in the first quarter. That compares with growth of 2% in the final quarter last year. Investors have pulled billions of dollars out of the country, hitting the ruble and pushing up inflation. The central bank has responded by raising interest rates twice, squeezing businesses and households.

Japan’s economy grew at a breakneck pace in the first three months of the year as consumers went on a massive shopping spree to avoid a planned sales tax increase. Gross domestic product (GDP) grew at an annual rate of 5.9% in the first quarter, Japan’s Cabinet Office said Thursday. The expansion was much quicker than the 4% figure expected by economists, and a major rebound from disappointing growth in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Persecution Watch

One in four adults worldwide are “deeply infected with anti-Semitic attitudes,” the Anti-Defamation League announced, in releasing results of an unprecedented global survey. Nearly half have never heard of the Holocaust, and only a third believe historical descriptions are accurate, the survey found. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, the survey included 102 countries representing 88% of the world’s adult population. In native languages, it asked people whether certain traditionally anti-Semtic statements are probably true or false, including that Jews have too much power over international markets, global media, and the U.S. government; that they “don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind,” and that “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars.” The survey then calculated how many believed that at least six of the 11 stereotypes were probably true. In the Middle East and North Africa, 74% did. In Eastern Europe, one in three did, and in Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, nearly one in four believed most of the stereotypes. Overall, 26% believed at least six of the stereotypes — a figure representing an estimated 1.1 billion people.

A Sudanese court has sentenced a Christian woman to death for renouncing Islam, her lawyer said Thursday. Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, 27, was convicted by a Khartoum court this week of apostasy, or the renunciation of faith. The court considers her to be Muslim. She also was convicted of adultery because her marriage to a Christian man was considered void under Sharia law. She was sentenced to 100 lashes for the second crime.

Ukraine

European analysts say there is no need for Russia to invade eastern Ukraine now that it has gained ultimate authority over much of the country by its takeover of Crimea and declarations of independence in the pro-Russian east. About 90% of voters allegedly backed sovereignty and two regions declared independence Monday, though the vote was impossible to confirm since it was run by the people seeking to secede.

Turkey

Rescue teams have recovered eight more victims from a coal mine in western Turkey, raising the death toll in Turkey’s worst mining disaster to 282. Hopes for some 150 other miners trapped underground faded even as the government were focusing rescue efforts in two areas inside the mind. The operation was hampered by a fire still blazing inside the mine. The government has said 787 people were inside the coal mine at the time of Tuesday’s explosion and 363 were rescued, including scores who were injured.

Iran

he biggest hurdle Iran and world powers must overcome to clinch a lasting deal on Tehran’s nuclear program by a July deadline is agreeing on the future scope of uranium enrichment in the Islamic Republic, officials and diplomats said on Thursday. An Iranian official said it will be ‘very difficult though not impossible’ to bridge the divide. Western officials said Iran and the six powers must agree not only on the number and type of centrifuge machines Iran will operate but also the level of enrichment and size of uranium stocks Tehran can accumulate. As a result, diplomats said that enrichment has emerged as the principal sticking point in negotiations.

Nigeria

Villagers in an area of Nigeria where Boko Haram operates have killed and detained scores of the extremist Islamic militants who were suspected of planning a fresh attack, the residents and a security official said. Locals in Nigeria’s northern states have been forming vigilante groups in various areas to resist the militant group which hold more than 270 schoolgirls captive. In Kalabalge, a village about 155 miles from the Borno state capital of Maiduguri, residents said they were taking matters into their own hands because the Nigerian military is not doing enough to stem Boko Haram attacks. On Tuesday morning, after learning about an impending attack by militants, locals ambushed two trucks with gunmen At least 10 militants were detained, and scores were killed.

Venezuela

Shoppers in Venezuela know that shortages of staples like cornmeal, milk and chicken are a harsh reality of life, but now — amid violent protests and strikes — shortages have spread to that most basic of basics: bread. Lines are forming, and fights have broken out outside bakeries as politicians and business leaders point fingers. In recent days, people have had to wait in line for hours under the scorching sun. The problem stems from labor, social unrest and currency regulation that ties to difficulties importing raw ingredients. The problem started last year when a strike stopped production at a flour mill in Monagas state that supplies 35% of all the flour in Venezuela.

Wildfires

San Diego County remained under a state of emergency Thursday morning, as nine fires burned in a 14-square-mile area, fanned by hot, dry air and unusual springtime Santa Ana winds. Thousands of people have been evacuated and many schools across the city and the county have canceled classes until at least next week. New evacuations were ordered Thursday morning in San Marcos. Overall, about 21,000 people are out of their homes, including students who were in the middle of finals at a campus of California State University. In Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, flames were shooting up along canyon ridges as thick black smoke darkened blue skies. A power outage closed the Legoland California amusement park. Carlsbad’s city government said eight homes, an eight-unit apartment complex and two businesses had been damaged. No serious injuries were reported.

A pair of wildfires flared and thousands of residents fled amid drought conditions and spiking heat in California. The two fires about 250 miles apart — the Bernardo fire in San Diego and the Miguelito fire in Santa Barbara County — burned hundreds of acres each Tuesday. The Bernardo fire charred at least 850 acres and was only about 5 percent contained, but it was no longer an imminent threat to homes. Evacuation orders were lifted for all of the more than 20,000 residents in and around San Diego on Tuesday night just a few hours after they were called, and all but a handful of the 1,200 homes and businesses told to evacuate in Santa Barbara County had been allowed to return. However, hot, dry, windy conditions that fed a host of fires in California this week are forecast to continue through the week.

Weather

A plodding system that has left flooding in multiple Midwestern and Southern states pushed east again on Thursday, bringing the threat of flash floods to urban areas by Friday. The biggest area of concern for local flash flooding stretches from the Appalachians into western and central New York with ‘nuisance’ street flooding in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and possibly Philadelphia and New York City. Dozens of vehicles were stranded and schools were closed in the Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff, which experienced some of the worst flooding from thunderstorms that socked northeast Illinois. Authorities shut down a section of U.S. highway 41 in the Lake County village. Flooding from heavy rainfall over the past couple of days also is bringing flooding worries to some parts of Michigan. A state of emergency has been declared in parts of a county in the Finger Lakes region after flash flooding caused by heavy rains forced evacuations and closed roads.

The vast glaciers of western Antarctica are rapidly melting and losing ice to the sea and almost certainly have “passed the point of no return,” according to new work by two separate teams of scientists. The likely result: a rise in global sea levels of 4 feet or more in the coming centuries. The researchers say the fate of the glaciers is almost certainly beyond hope. Total collapse is almost inevitable, the study shows. The data show the glaciers are stretching out, thinning and shrinking in volume. They’re also flowing faster from the continent’s interior to the sea, dumping larger quantities of ice into the ocean.

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