Signs of the Times (9/1/14)

Federal Judge Strikes Down Key Part of Texas Abortion Law

A federal judge ruled Friday that it is unconstitutional to force abortion clinics to become surgical centers in the state of Texas, effectively throwing out a key component of an anti-abortion law that would have forced the closure of a number of facilities. In making the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel wrote that forcing the clinics to meet the same standards as hospital-level surgical centers “imposes an undue burden on the right of women throughout Texas to seek a pre-viability abortion.” That part of the Texas law was scheduled to take effect on Monday; critics of the law say it would have required the closing of a majority of 19 abortion clinics. The Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Medical Board filed a notice of appeal.

Federal Judge Rules Utah’s Anti-Polygamy Law Unconstitutional

A federal judge in Utah has issued a final ruling that strikes down parts of the state’s anti-polygamy law, in a lawsuit filed by a family that appears on the TV show “Sister Wives.” Kody Brown and his four wives sued Utah in 2011 after a county prosecutor threatened to charge them under the state’s bigamy law. Waddoups ruled that a provision in the law forbidding cohabitation violates the Browns’ freedom of religion. The ruling is a landmark decision and a victory for the Brown family. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in February that he intends to appeal.

  • Opening the door to same-sex marriage will continue to have deleterious ripple effects across the entire spectrum of marriage and family

California Catholic Colleges Forced to Provide Abortion Coverage

Some California Catholics now face a dilemma between standing strong on their faith and having health insurance that goes against their religious beliefs. In recent days, Gov. Jerry Brown has mandated coverage for abortions in insurance policies for two Catholic universities. Gov. Brown’s push to allow abortion coverage in health insurance plans targets Los Angeles-based Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University. David Luke, co-founder of Renew LMC, told the Catholic News Agency, “California Catholics are no longer safe to practice their faith within their own institutions. Gov. Brown’s decision demonstrates that, in California, tolerance does not extend to people of faith and moral conscience.”

‘Imminent’ Terror Attack Warning on US Border

Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorist cells are operating in a Mexican border town and are plotting to attack the United States with car bombs and improvised explosive devices, according to Judicial Watch, citing intelligence sources. A red alert has been issued by Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the Department of Defense to its agents to actively investigate all possible leads to what the government watchdog group says is “an imminent terrorist threat.” The terror groups have been confirmed as having operatives planning atrocities in Ciudad Juarez, a crime-ridden, drug-trafficking mecca situated across from El Paso, Texas, federal law enforcement, intelligence, and other sources told Judicial Watch. Officials have picked up radio talk and chatter indicating that the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaida groups are soon going to “carry out an attack on the border.”

NATO Summit ‘Most Important’ since Fall of Berlin Wall

Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s highest ranking military officer from 2009-13, and now dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said the Sept. 4-5 NATO Summit — taking place just outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff, in the town of Newport — is “clearly the most important one since the fall of the Berlin Wall because of the clear level of multi-crises” unfolding around the world all at once. Among the major areas of concern Stavridis identified Islamic State activities in Syria and Iraq, and along the Turkish border; the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring (in Libya and Egypt); the winding down of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and the challenge of setting up a longer-term mission there; escalating concerns over cyber threats; territorial disputes in the South China Sea; the Ebola virus; ever-more forceful environmental catastrophes; and “many others. However, Stavridis said that the issue that will dominate summit discussions by Obama, German President Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and some 60 other leaders and senior diplomats will be what to do about “Russian adventurism” in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Cyberattacks: Perpetual State of Siege

The financial industry — indeed, most of the business world — works within a state of almost perpetual cybersiege at a level few consumers grasp. And the costs and dangers are growing for those who seek to protect their assets and their customers. “The constant barrage of attacks is real,” says J.J. Thompson, CEO of Rook Security, an Indianapolis-based firm. Online attacks are a fact of life for businesses today. American financial institutions are in the midst of a crime wave unlike any since the 1920s and the age of gangsters, says Tom Kellermann, a professor of cybersecurity at American University who also sits on the board of the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance. The attacks seem to be part of an international wave of nationalist cybercrime campaigns against financial institutions, which began this spring.

Economic News

Consumer spending unexpectedly fell in July as Americans paused after stepping up their buying the previous months. The Commerce Department said spending dipped 0.1% after surging 0.4% in June. Personal income increased 0.2% last month. Retail sales were flat in July. Although consumer confidence recently hit a seven-year high, Americans have been cautious in their purchases partly because of modest wage increases and higher food prices. Consumer spending is closely followed by economists because it makes up about 70% of the economic activity.

Job growth has accelerated this year, but women are falling a bit behind. Men have outpaced women since the jobs recovery began in 2010. That’s largely because they were hit much harder by job losses in manufacturing and construction during the 2007-09 Great Recession and benefited more as those sectors bounced back. But men have widened their lead in terms of job growth, in part because of a boom in oil and natural gas drilling. Women garnered 45% of all jobs gained over the past 12 months, down from half of all payroll additions in the previous year.

The clock is running out on Japan’s ambitious plan for economic revival as growth sputters and doubts grow over the government’s ability to deliver key reforms. A massive bond-buying campaign coupled with structural reforms and stimulus from the central government has failed to lift wages, bring more women into the workforce or boost exports. A sales tax hike spurred a massive contraction in the second quarter.

Russia’s currency has hit its lowest level ever against the U.S. dollar as the risk of new Western sanctions threatens more economic damage. The ruble slid 0.5% against the dollar Monday, taking its losses for the year to about 13%. The sliding currency will make life harder for Russians by raising the cost of imports, which could further fuel inflation that has already risen to about 7.5%.

Persecution Watch

Two public elementary schools in Texas have covered dedication plaques that referenced God with duct tape after receiving a complaint for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The Midlothian Independent School District confirmed that the plaques had been covered temporarily and will eventually be replaced with dedication plaques that do not reference religion. The plaques displayed at Mountain Peak Elementary School and Longbranch Elementary School read, “Dedicated in the year of our Lord 1997 to the education of God’s children and their faithful teachers in the name of the Holy Christian Church. Soli Deo Gloria.”

  • Typically, secularists want to rewrite history and ignore the faith and witness of their ancestors.

Middle East

After seven weeks of fighting, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has reached a lasting halt. Now both sides of the conflict have claimed victory. Israel and Hamas left many issues unresolved, which has led many to speculate that the over 2,000 lives lost were a far too hefty debt. Alex Fishman for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper observed, “Both sides did not exactly want this campaign, both sides made all possible errors dragging them into it, and both sides find themselves today returning to square one, where they were at the start of the warfare.”

Islamic State

American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have identified nearly a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant group that the Obama administration says poses the greatest threat to the United States since Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As ISIS has seized large expanses of territory in recent months, it has drawn more foreign men to Syria, requiring more American and European law enforcement resources in the attempt to stop the flow of fighters, senior American officials said. ISIS has become more attractive to would-be militants because, unlike Al Qaeda, it has seized territory that it rules by strict Islamic law. Two American men have died fighting for ISIS. The Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at Fort Hood has written a letter to the leader of ISIS, asking to become a citizen of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

At least four hostages held in Syria by the Islamic State, including an American journalist who was recently executed by the group, were waterboarded in the early part of their captivity, according to people familiar with the treatment of the kidnapped Westerners. Waterboarding often involves strapping a person down on a gurney or bench and pouring cold water over a cloth covering the face. It causes the sensation of drowning. “The wet cloth creates a barrier through which it is difficult — or in some cases not possible — to breathe,” according to a Justice Department memo in May 2005 about the CIA’s use of the technique. The FBI, which is investigating Foley’s death and the abduction of Americans in Syria, declined to comment.

Boko Haram militants claim that they are turning Nigerian into an Islamic caliphate. The Muslim extremist organization is in control of three known towns, and continues to gain power and influence in the region. The militants conquered Gwoza Aug. 6, destroying homes and killing many residents. Some survivors have fled to surrounding mountains, as well as bordering nation Cameroon. The exact number of Boko Haram members is unknown; however, militants are believed to be recruiting fighters in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. Some officials fear that Boko Haram are working with ISIS terrorists.

Ukraine

In a bluntly worded message Friday, NATO on Friday condemned Russian military action in Ukraine, saying its troops have “illegally crossed the border” as part of a “dangerous pattern over many months” to destabilize its neighbor. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine commission, was unsparing in his criticism of Russia, charging that its forces were directly engaged in military operations inside Ukraine, continued to supply separatists with tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers and had fired on Ukraine from both Russian territory and within Ukraine itself. Russia has denied its troops have operated inside Ukraine, despite NATO’s release of satellite images on Thursday showing what the Western alliance said were Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery moving around in eastern Ukraine. Nearly 2,600 people have died in clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-back rebels since April. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that his country’s military would not interfere with the situation in Ukraine.

Syria

The civil war in Syria has forced 3 million people out of the country as more than a million people fled in the past year, creating a crisis that the U.N. refugee agency said requires the biggest operation in its 64-year history. Syria had a prewar population of 23 million. “The Syria crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.bout one of every eight Syrians has fled across the border, and 6.5 million others have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, the Geneva-based agency said. More than half of all those uprooted are children, it said.

Clashes erupted between al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels and U.N. peacekeepers in the Golan Heights on Saturday after the militants surrounded their encampment, activists and officials said, as the international organization risked being sucked further into the conflict. Other U.N. peacekeepers were able to flee from a different encampment that that was also surrounded by rebels of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate. The clashes came after Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, overran the Quneitra crossing — located on the frontier between Syrian and Israeli controlled parts of the Golan Heights — on Wednesday, seizing 44 Fijian peacekeepers. The Nusra Front also surrounded the nearby Rwihana and Breiqa encampments, where other U.N. peacekeepers were holed up.

Iraq

Iraqi security forces, with the help of Shiite volunteers, broke a six-week siege by Islamic State militants on the northern Iraqi town of Amirli on Sunday, a day after U.S. airstrikes targeted the area. Fighting was still ongoing in surrounding villages. The community, located about 105 miles north of Baghdad, initially came under siege in June, but 15,000 Shiite Turkmen were able to hold off militants, who eventually surrounded the village in mid-July. The military was now disturbing aid to residents of Amirli, which is home to the Turkmen, an ethnic minority.

Pakistan

At least one person has died and hundreds of others have been injured as police in Pakistan clashed with protesters who attempted to march on the prime minister’s residence in Islamabad Saturday evening. More than 300 people were wounded in the clashes, medical officials said, as police battled protesters with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets near the premier’s official residence and the adjacent parliament building. The violence has raised the stakes in a political standoff, in which cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led twin protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, alleging massive voting fraud in the election that brought him into office last year in the country’s first democratic transfer of power. Backed by parliament and many political parties, Sharif has refused to step down. Pakistani anti-government protesters stormed the state TV building on Monday, forcing the channel briefly off the air as they clashed with police.

Pestilence

More than 1,552 people have died during the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. The official toll from the World Health Organization is considered to be a vast underestimate of the true number of lives lost from Ebola in 2014. WHO said the actual number of cases in many hard-hit areas may be two to four times higher than the rates currently reported. That suggests there could be up to 12,000 cases already. The largest outbreak in the past was about 400 cases. So far, the outbreak is concentrated in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, though increasingly, cases are being reported in Nigeria. On Sunday, Congo declared an outbreak of the Ebola virus, after two patients tested positive for the disease. A man infected with Ebola traveled to Senegal, becoming the first recorded in that country on Monday.

Officials in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana say a brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, has been detected in the parish’s water. The water system serves 12,577 people in the southern Louisiana towns of Reserve, Garyville and Mount Airy. Families can take simple steps to protect themselves from exposure to this amoeba, the most important being to avoid allowing water to go up your nose while bathing or swimming in a pool,” said Louisiana State Health Officer Jimmy Guidry. “It is important to remember that the water is safe to drink; the amoeba cannot infect an individual through the stomach.” St. John public school system turned off at water fountains at all schools. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the amoeba is commonly found in warm freshwater lakes, rivers and hot springs, and soil.

Millions of locusts blacked out portions of the sky in Madagascar’s capital city of Antananarivo, the scene a part of an ongoing plague that’s threatening the food supply of more than 13 million people, reports ABC News. The plague started back in April of 2012 and was largely limited to the rural, agricultural areas of the island nation. But last Thursday the locusts arrived in hordes in Antananarivo, a city of more than 700,000 people, attracted by unseasonably warm temperatures. The locust swarm is roughly the size of Japan, with the insects chewing up vital crops like rice and corn. “Locust infestations, if untreated, could wipe out food crops and livestock grazing lands — and with it a family’s ability to provide for itself,” the Washington Post reports. Around 500 billion locusts are eating around 100,000 metric tons of vegetation per day.

Earthquakes

The Alaska Earthquake Information Center says a magnitude 5.1 earthquake hit 43 miles northwest of Fairbanks on Saturday night. The center says no reports of damage have been received about the earthquake. It adds that the earthquake hit at 7:06 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time and had a depth of 10 miles. The Fairbanks News-Miner reports that It was widely felt in the Fairbanks and North Pole areas and as far as Healy and Manley Hot Springs. The earthquake center says that on Aug. 13 a light earthquake with a magnitude of 4.4 struck the state’s Cook Inlet region. That quake, recorded at 10:04 p.m. Alaska time, was centered about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage at a depth of about 82 miles.

A 3.4-magnitude earthquake rumbled through northern California early Sunday, the U.S. Geological Survey said. The quake hit 5 miles southwest of Napa, the center of California’s famed wine country. It comes a week after a 6.0-magnitude quake — the strongest in northern California in a quarter of a century — struck the same area on August 24. The two earthquakes were a little over a mile from each other. There are no reports of damage so far. The previous quake injured dozens, damaged historic buildings in downtown Napa and turned fireplaces into rubble. It also caused at least $1 billion in property damage in Napa and other communities.

A magnitude-6 earthquake struck northern Pakistan on Sunday, authorities said, though there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. People felt the quake in Peshawar and Islamabad. Its epicenter was in the Hindu Kush mountains on the country’s border with Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Pakistan and the region, along an active continental plate boundary, is often hit by earthquakes. In September 2013, a magnitude-7.7 quake struck Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, killing at least 376 people.

Volcanoes

Papua New Guinea’s Mount Tavurvur erupted Friday, spewing smoke and ash over the South Pacific nation and 60,000 feet into the sky. Several communities were evacuated and some international flights were diverted. Residents of Rabaul town, the provincial capital, were advised to remain indoors to avoid falling ash. The volcano, one of the most active in the region, destroyed the town of Rabaul in 1994 when it erupted simultaneously with nearby Mount Vulcan.

A small fissure erupted near Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano on Friday, but no volcanic ash was detected by the radar system, officials in Iceland said Friday. As a precaution, they raised the aviation warning code to red, the highest alert level. The eruption took place in the Holuhraun lava field, north of Dyngjujoekull glacier. Sunday’s eruption was a “very calm lava eruption and can hardly be seen on seismometers.” The latest eruption is third such eruption to take place in the area since August 23. Activity has slowly been increasing in magnitude around the site for the past couple of weeks.

Wildfires

A pair of wildfires sparked by lightning three weeks ago in the Klamath National Forest in Northern California are now threatening as many as 250 homes near the rural town of Happy Camp. The two fires, which are the largest of about 20 that broke out in the forest Aug. 11, continued to grow after favorable weather conditions stoked the flames overnight. Originally located a few miles apart, the fires had merged by Saturday morning and together charred more than 90 square miles. The fires were only 15% contained by Saturday afternoon.

Weather

A massive landslide at a village in southwestern China killed at least 14 people Friday, and hundreds of rescuers remained on the hunt for survivors. Another 11 people were still missing and 22 left injured from the collapse of a mountainside on Wednesday night following three days of heavy rain. The official Xinhua News Agency said 77 houses collapsed or were buried in the landslide. The breaching of a small reservoir during the landslide also caused flooding that covered houses up to their roofs. State-run China National Radio cited villagers saying they had complained for years to authorities about weakening of the mountainside caused by past mining operations.

This summer of extremes has seen numerous records broken across the U.S. June saw a number of precipitation records fall in the Midwest and Plains, while July was one of the coolest months on record for many in the Midwest and South. August brought a taste of the heat. Flooding was also a big story for the month of August, but the August tornado count in the U.S. was the lowest since at least the 1960s. The official end of the summer saw severe thunderstorms dumping large hail, damaging winds and torrential rain in parts of Plains Sunday. Five camper trailers were blown over in Yellow Smoke Park, Iowa. Several roads were flooded and closed in the area and one dam on farmland had failed. Over six inches of rain had drenched Crawford County. In Sergeant Bluff, the winds had sent trees falling onto homes and pulled down power lines, while the rain caused street flooding. More than 6,000 customers across Iowa had lost power.

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