Signs of the Times (2/9/15)

Alabama Chief Justice Orders Ban on Same-Sex Marriages to No Avail

Alabama began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples Monday despite an 11th-hour attempt from the state’s chief justice — an outspoken opponent — to block the weddings. The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday morning that it wouldn’t stop the marriages, and shortly after, probate judges began granting the licenses to couples, some of whom had been lined up for hours and exited courthouses to applause from supporters. Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore on Sunday ordered the state’s probate judges not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The outspoken social conservative told judges in a six-page letter that a federal judge’s decision striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was not binding on state courts, and that it had caused “confusion” in the state. Issued hours before same-sex marriage was expected to become legal in Alabama, the letter says “no probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent with Article 1, Section 36.03, of the Alabama Constitution or § 30-1-19, Ala. Code 1975.” The named sections refer, respectively, to the state’s 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and the 1998 law doing so. U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade struck down both the law and the constitutional amendment in two decisions on Jan. 23 and Jan. 26, saying they violated same-sex couples’ equal protection and due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Moore’s order comes as a stay of Granade’s decision was set to expire; as of Sunday evening.

US to Appoint Gay Rights Envoy

The United States will appoint an openly gay official as a special envoy to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people overseas, the US State Department said last Friday. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said US Secretary of State John Kerry would “soon” make the appointment. “It will be an openly gay foreign service officer. We don’t have a finalized name yet. But we will announce soon,” Harf said. Harf said the appointment reflected Kerry’s “commitment and the administration’s commitment to advancing the human rights of LGBT persons globally.” President Barack Obama’s administration has repeatedly pressed foreign governments on the human rights of gays and lesbians, systematically drawing attention to rights abuses or repression in several African countries. The US Supreme Court announced last month it will hear a case on same-sex marriage later this year that is expected to finally settle once and for all the debate in America surrounding the long-running civil rights issue.

  • The gay rights agenda is a key end-time indicator of the decline in morality prophesied in 2Timothy 3:1-4

Boehner Disappointing Traditional Marriage Advocates

An Ohio-based pro-family activist is disappointed that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is refusing to take a stand for traditional marriage. Boehner was recently asked about the Supreme Court taking up the marriage issue and said, “I don’t expect that we’re going to weigh in on this. The court will make its decision, and that’s why they’re there — to be the highest court in the land.” Phil Burress, who lives in Boehner’s congressional district and serves as chairman of Citizens for Community Values, finds it “very disappointing and … typical of politicians to hide behind judges.” But Burress adds that traditional marriage proponents are not going to give up the institution of marriage, and he warns that lawmakers will have to pay a price in upcoming elections if indeed they turn the wrong way on marriage.

Obama’s Crusade-Islam Parallel ‘Borderline Treasonous’

During his address in Washington, Obama told those in attendance to “remember that during the crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Dr. Alex McFarland, a Christian apologist and co-host of American Family Radio’s “Exploring the Word” program, says the president’s words are unthinkable and “borderline treasonous.” “To compare Christianity to the crimes of Islam is absolutely unacceptable,” Dr. McFarland asserts. “Islam in its sacred writings prescribes violence against non-believers; the Bible does not. Mohammad ordered the killings of his enemies; Jesus Christ never did that… The Crusades were self-defense against Muslim barbarism and murder,” McFarland explains. “So to in some way attribute Christianity as being the evil equivalent of Islamic terrorism is absolutely ludicrous.”

Hackers Can Get Into Most ‘Connected Cars’ in U.S.

Virtually all “connected cars” on the road are vulnerable to hackers who could steal data or gain control of the vehicle, a report from a US senator said Monday. The report prepared by the staff of Senator Ed Markey said the wireless connectivity and Internet access available on the vehicles opens up security gaps that could be exploited for malicious purposes. The study found these security weaknesses in “nearly 100 percent of cars on the market” and noted that most automobile manufacturers were unaware of or unable to report on past hacking incidents. The report also noted that many of these connected cars collect data on driving that could be kept in violation of privacy.

FCC Favors Consumers in Net Neutrality Debate

Net Neutrality — the hot-button Washington issue that’s pitted big wireless carriers and cable companies vs. consumers, was in the news this week when FCC chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he was clearly on the side of consumers. The Internet is a utility, he said, and companies shouldn’t be able to charge firms like Netflix and Amazon extra when throngs of people flock to their sites in the evening to watch entertainment. The wireless and cable companies want to charge higher prices for higher volume usage which is opposite to the usual free-market practice of giving discounts to high volume customers.

Solar and Wind Power Costs Rapidly Declining

A decline in costs for renewable solar and wind power generation is picking up speed according to a new study released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Since the end of 2009, solar photovoltaic (PV) module costs have fallen 75 percent. Electricity generation costs from utility-scale solar PV have also dropped, falling 50 percent since 2010. Onshore wind is now the most competitive form of electricity generation among renewable energy sources. As of 2014, their total global installed capacity is still comparatively tiny, but their costs are falling and should continue falling as the industry matures.

Economic News

Total outstanding non-mortgage credit increased by $14.7 billion to $3.3 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Friday. Revolving debt, which includes credit cards, increased by $5.8 billion to $887.9 billion, the largest increase since April. Non-revolving credit, which is mostly auto and student loans, rose by $8.9 billion to $2.42 trillion. Auto sales have reached near-record levels as Americans replace aging vehicles and lending standards ease.

Things looked bleak for the Dow Jones industrial average at the end of January. But a four-day ‘flash’ rally has erased early-year losses and put the blue chip gauge back in the black for 2015. A 720-point rally in the span of four days erased the January losses and put the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 0.35% for the year and within 169 points of its all-time closing high of 18,053.71. The gains have been powered by stabilization of oil prices (stabilization is code word for oil prices finally going up) and solid fourth-quarter earnings reports.

RadioShack, the once invaluable seller of cords, eight-track players and VCRs, filed for bankruptcy protection Thursday. The ubiquitous retailer becomes one of the most storied brands to file for bankruptcy protection amid pressure from online retailers and big-box stores. The firm, made famous by its former CEO Charles Tandy in Fort Worth, Texas, traces its roots back 94 years. Plans for the company’s future will keep the RadioShack brand alive, albeit with roughly 50% fewer stores and in a co-branded fashion with wireless telecom Sprint.

RadioShack’s bankruptcy will put thousands of workers out of work, but Staples’ plan to buy rival Office Depot could cost even more jobs. The two office supply companies have about 4,000 stores and nearly 150,000 employees between them. About half of those stores within five miles one another. Some industry analysts estimate that at least 1,000 locations will be shuttered, about 25% of the total.

Greece has set the stage for a mighty battle with its lenders this week, and that’s making investors very nervous. Stocks in Athens fell sharply Monday after Prime Minister Alex Tsipras outlined plans to reverse a string of economic reforms in defiance of Greece’s bailout terms. He is due to meet fellow European leaders this week. Tsipras’ party was elected last month on a promise to scale back severe spending cuts that Greece imposed in exchange for about $271.5 billion in international rescue loans. Setting out his policies in parliament Sunday, Tsipras vowed to raise the minimum wage, rehire some public sector workers and provide free food and electricity for the poorest households.

Russia is skating on thin ice: Cheap oil, Western sanctions and years of mismanagement have sent its economy into a deep freeze. As things stand, Russian GDP is expected to shrink by 5% (or more) this year, inflation has soared to 15%, the ruble is trading near record lows, and its companies are shut out of financial markets in the U.S. and Europe. Escalating violence in Ukraine could lead to new international sanctions. So just how long can Russia avoid complete economic meltdown? Much will depend on how fast it burns through its remaining stash of foreign currency. Last year it spent $134 billion trying to prop up the ruble, bail out struggling companies and contain the crisis.

Middle East

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted diplomats from the US and Canada at his official residence on Sunday, telling them “We don’t always agree with our friends on possible solutions to our problems, but such disagreements should not be allowed to hamper the friendship.” He cited ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians and differing approaches to Iran’s renegade nuclear program as examples of how its sometimes more difficult for Israel to deal with friends than with enemies. The meeting came as the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “determined to go” to Washington early next month to address a joint session of the US Congress about the dangers posed by Iran, even as a rising chorus of opposition to the speech has arisen among his political opponents in Israel and the US, reports ICEJ.

Islamic State

Jordan’s military carried out dozens of air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) terror militia over the weekend, with a senior air force general telling reporters Sunday it estimated it had destroyed a substantial portion of the groups military capability and assets. Elsewhere, the US reportedly delivered $25 million worth of artillery guns, ammunition and other supplies to the Lebanese Armed Forces on Sunday to aid it in fighting IS. “We are fighting the same enemy, so our support for (Lebanon) has been swift and continuous,” said US ambassador to Beirut, David Hale. Meanwhile, General John Allen, the US official coordinating the international anti-IS coalition, told reporters on Sunday that coordination was improving between Washington’s Arab allies in the fight against IS and that the Iraqi military is preparing for a ground offensive within weeks to re-take areas that have fallen under IS control.

The battle against the Islamic State dominated the political talk shows Sunday as guests on the programs spoke about Kayla Mueller, the U.S. hostage from Prescott, Arizona whom ISIL claimed Friday was killed by a Jordanian air strike. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said that his department is monitoring developments surrounding Mueller, but he did not shed any new light on her fate. U.S. officials have not confirmed the claim that Mueller was killed in the air strike. Discussion also touched on the U.S. government’s policy to not pay ransoms, its attempts at rescue operations and whether escalating military action is needed or merely a trap set by the terrorists.

Johnson said the U.S. had shown, with the attempted rescue of the journalist James Foley, it is willing to try to rescue hostages in similar situations. Former U.S. Rep Mike Rogers, now a CNN commentator, said paying ransoms would put other Americans overseas at risk. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Tex., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, blamed the Obama administration for not doing enough to attack ISIL. He said he hopes the United States can galvanize Arab nations to take a greater military role, including ground troops.

Mullah Abdul Rauf was a Taliban commander captured by the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay. But he was let go and returned to Afghanistan. Rauf went on to become a recruiter for ISIS in Afghanistan. He was killed in a drone strike Monday, two officials told CNN. Rauf and five others were killed, four of them Pakistani militants. The Washington Post, in a headline last month, called him “the shadowy figure recruiting for the Islamic State in Afghanistan.”

Iraq

Bombs exploded Sunday in and around Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, killing at least 40 people in a stark warning of the dangers still ahead in this country under attack by the Islamic State group. The deadliest of Saturday’s bombings happened in the capital’s New Baghdad neighborhood, where a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a street filled with hardware stores and a restaurant, killing 22 people. The Islamic State group later claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the bomber targeted Shiites. The Sunni extremists now hold a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria in their self-declared caliphate. A second attack happened in central Baghdad’s popular Shorja market, where two bombs some 25 meters apart exploded, killing at least 11 people. Another bombing at the Abu Cheer outdoor market in southwestern Baghdad killed at least four people.

Niger

Boko Haram staged an overnight assault on a border town in Niger, residents said Sunday, the second time the West African nation has come under attack by the Nigeria-based extremists since Friday. The attack on the town of Diffa began Saturday night, and fighting between Boko Haram and Niger’s army lasted until 5 a.m. toward the town’s southern entrance before the extremists were forced to flee and calm was restored. Officials could not immediately be reached to confirm residents’ accounts or give casualty figures. The fight against Nigeria’s Boko Haram has taken on an increasingly regional dimension in recent months, with the extremists staging attacks in both Cameroon and Niger last week alone.

Ukraine

Amid renewed violence in eastern Ukraine, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France planned a face-to-face meeting in Belarus on Wednesday. The gathering of the four presidents, who have been talking for days on the phone or through diplomatic channels, is a significant development, as the heads of state would not want to walk away from such a gathering empty-handed. The big challenge facing Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande is whether they can reach a peace agreement that will stick. A peace agreement was signed in September — also in Minsk, Belarus — that envisaged a ceasefire and the creation of a buffer zone between the warring sides, as well as constitutional changes. However, it quickly crumbled amid continued fighting.

Western leaders and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of providing weapons and training to the pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have also accused Russia of sending troops to the border to fight. Russia has denied the allegations. On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Putin was acting like a “mid-20th century tyrant.” Meanwhile, the conflict has killed more than 5,000 people. On Sunday, shelling killed eight civilians in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. At least 17 other civilians were injured in the shelling. Civilians increasingly are falling victim to the violence in Ukraine, with at least 224 killed and more than 540 injured in just the final three weeks of January. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet at the White House Monday amid growing calls from US lawmakers to provide lethal aid to Ukrainian troops, left, and insistence by European officials that a diplomatic solution to the conflict should be pursued.

Volcanoes

The Fire Volcano in southern Guatemala exploded incandescent rock and ash over surrounding towns Saturday. Authorities put area on alert, but no evacuations have been made so far. Ash mixed with a drizzle to reduce visibility as the volcano continued to rumble. The National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction agency issued instructions urging people to take shelter, wear masks, cover water tanks and be aware of evacuation routes. Firefighters were standing by. The volcano sits on the border of the Guatemalan states of Escuintla, Sacatepequez and Chimaltenango.

Weather

Weeks of heavy snow have shattered records, and yet another snowstorm is cranking over the region closing schools and businesses and worrying exhausted officials that the already-stretched infrastructure might reach its breaking point this week. “There’s just no place to put this snow,” said Jim Cantore, storm tracker for The Weather Channel. More than 1,500 domestic flights were canceled by Monday morning. Just after midnight Sunday, Bangor, Maine, tied its all-time record snow depth, with 53 inches on the ground. More than 61 inches of snow have fallen in the last 17 days at Boston Logan International Airport, shattering the old 30-day record of 58.8 inches. The National Weather Service confirmed 19.8 inches of snow had fallen from this latest snowstorm in North Weymouth by 7 a.m. Monday morning.

Residents of Northern California hunkered down after preparing their homes and businesses for the massive storm that is packing a punch with heavy rains over the weekend. The storm systems impacting areas from central California to the Pacific Northwest over the last few days have been tapping into a so-called atmospheric river. Additional rainfall is expected from Northern California to the Pacific Northwest on Monday. Given that the ground is already saturated from heavy rain the last few days, landslides, debris flows, and urban flooding are expected. Downed trees and power lines were reported on Friday morning in the South Lake Tahoe area, and a wind gust of 134 mph was recorded at the top of Slide Mountain. Even in the lower elevations gusts of 60 mph have been reported. Some impressive rainfall totals have already accumulated as of 7 p.m. PST Sunday: 11.44 inches near Honeydew, California; 8.03 inches.in Santa Clara County; up to 7 inches in western Washington; 5.13 inches in Kerby, Oregon.

The calendar may say February, but for many in the West and Plains it will feel like spring into the new week ahead, with record early February warmth continuing in some locations. On Sunday, Wichita, Kansas (74 degrees), El Paso, Texas (79 degrees), and Boise, Idaho (65 degrees), were among the cities that set daily record highs. Spokane, Washington reached the 50s for the fourth day in a row on Sunday, which is a record warm stretch for so early in the season. Salt Lake City also experienced their fourth consecutive day of record high temperatures on Sunday when the thermometer hit 64 degrees. Monday, the potential for record highs will mainly be confined to the Southwest, including Phoenix and Albuquerque. Yuma, Arizona could reach 90 degrees, which would also be a daily record high.

Snowfall and heavy rain hammered Europe and brought deadly floods to the Balkans. The Associated Press reports that the persistent flooding in the Balkans forced the evacuation of at least 600 families and killed thousands of livestock. In Croatia and Slovenia, heavy snowfall snarled traffic over the weekend and caused authorities to place travel bans on major roadways. Hundreds of families have been evacuated from their homes in Albania. Snow continues to blanket parts of Italy and Spain, where hundreds of motorists were trapped on roadways. Eastern Macedonia was placed under a state of emergency along with portions of Greece, Euronews reported Saturday. The BBC reports that travelers in Spain were caught off guard by a dump of snow that totaled over a foot. Spanish emergency services rescued over 200 drivers trapped on roads, but many others remained stuck in their cars.

  • End-time weather will continue to grow more extreme with record warmth, floods and gigantic hail (Daniel 9:26b, Rev. 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

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