Signs of the Times (5/1/15)

Supreme Court Justices Skeptical about Redefining Marriage

Supreme Court justices appeared divided Tuesday during historic arguments over the constitutionality of gay marriage, with Justice Anthony Kennedy returning to a familiar role as the court’s pivotal vote. Chief Justice John Roberts — who shocked conservatives with his swing vote to uphold Obamacare — this time seemed to lean more closely to conservative justices. The arguments unfurled inside a packed courtroom on Tuesday while supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage rallied outside. Many questions on Tuesday centered around the definition of marriage and whether the decision to authorize or ban gay marriage should be left to voters in individual states or decided by the judicial system. At the start of arguments Roberts joined other conservatives concerned with the fact that marriage has been defined between a man and a woman for a long time. “This definition has been with us for millennia,” he said. The Supreme Court justices are expected to make their decision regarding same-sex marriage in late June.

A large and vocal group of Christian leaders have written a letter pledging to stand against any decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the United States. The group promises civil disobedience and to present a united front to the ever growing assault on traditional marriage and Christianity. Some of the more well-known signers include; Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Franklin Graham, James Dobson and it was co-written by Mat Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel, who told Todd Starnes, “We’re sending a warning to the Supreme Court and frankly any court that crosses the line on the issue of marriage.”

Daughters of Lesbians Tell Supreme Court ‘The Kids are Not Alright’

Children of gay parents are speaking out as the Supreme Court considers the legalization of same-sex marriage in Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky. Charisma News reports two daughters of women filed a “friend of the court” brief stating that their childhood living situation caused them harm. Heather Barwick and Katy Faust wrote, “While we love and cherish our mothers, we feel it’s imperative that we bring to the court’s attention the impact that redefining marriage will have on children like us. We oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it violates children’s rights and cannot provide children with the most foundational building blocks for child development—a mother and father living with and loving them.” Brandi Walton, who was also raised in a homosexual household, wrote a column published in The Federalist, that gay marriage harms children. “I knew from a young age that living with two women was not natural,” Walton wrote, in the piece called “The Kids Are Not Alright.” “I could especially see it in the homes of my friends who had a mom and a dad. I spent as much time with those friends as I possibly could.”

GoFundMe Shuts Down Second Christian Account

Another GoFundMe page was removed this week— this time, one for a Christian florist who could lose her business after she refused to be the florist for a same-sex wedding. This is the second Christian page GoFundMe has removed, according to Christian News Network. The first page that was taken down was Sweet Cakes by Melissa Klein, a business that was ordered to pay $135,000 in “emotional damages” to two lesbian women. The bakery owners had also refused to serve the wedding. A spokesperson for GoFundMe said that its decision “to remove the ‘Arlene’s Flowers’ campaign was based on a violation of GoFundMe’s terms. The subjects of the ‘Support Sweet Cakes By Melissa’ campaign have been formally charged by local authorities and found to be in violation of Oregon state law concerning discriminatory acts. Accordingly, the campaign has been disabled.” In response, Franklin Graham announced that he is letting people donate to the Klein family through Samaritan’s Purse, Fox News reports.

  • A double-dose of intolerant anti-Christian discrimination. Religious freedom for Christians is rapidly disappearing as the end-time anti-Christ spirit increases its influence.

Persecution Watch

Eight men who were executed in Indonesia this week reportedly prayed the Lord’s Prayer just before they were killed. According to Christian Today, Pastor Karina de Vega heard the prisoners singing “Bless the Lord O My Soul” and “Amazing Grace” as they were lined up for execution by firing squad. The eight men refused to wear blindfolds. “They were praising their God,” Vega told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It was breath-taking. This was the first time I witnessed someone so excited to meet their God.” The eight men were all convicted of drug trafficking. Two of the men, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were sentenced to death just 72 hours before. The Australian government, in response, warned Indonesian President Joko Widodo to reconsider the “cruel and unnecessary” sentence.

A mob of over 60 Hindu activists attacked two Christian schools in the city of Hazaribagh, in India’s north-eastern Jharkhand state, on April 21. Carrying flags and shouting slogans, they demanded to know why the schools did not have a statue of Saraswati, Hindu god of learning.

Doniyor Akhmedov was stopped by police in Uzbekistan’s Ahangaran District on March 16 after he gave a Christian leaflet to a passer-by on the street. Immediately detained, he was held for 15 days and issued a fine of 40 times the minimum monthly wage for undertaking “illegal missionary activity”.

Aid Reaches Nepal as Death Toll Tops 5,000

International aid finally reached some remote earthquake-affected areas in Nepal on Wednesday, as the death toll rose to more than 6,200 four days after the disaster struck. But help has yet to reach other areas cut off by landslides following Saturday’s magnitude-7.8 quake. The United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator on Tuesday released $15 million to help aid organizations provide immediate assistance. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala told Reuters on Tuesday that the death toll could reach 10,000. The United Nations estimates that 8 million people in 39 districts have been affected. More than 130,000 houses were destroyed in the capital Kathmandu. The European Union said Friday that 1,000 of its citizens, mostly tourists, remain unaccounted for following the earthquake in Nepal. The U.S. says about 500 Americans are also missing.

Weather is only making things worse in Nepal: a large storm rumbled over the mountainous terrain Tuesday afternoon producing local flooding. Heavy snow in the region also caused an avalanche and mudslide Tuesday in the isolated village of Ghodatabela, leaving 250 people missing. The quake pushed areas near the city of Kathmandu 3 feet higher in elevation and made Mount Everest slightly shorter.

Race Riots in Baltimore

Hundreds of protesters filled the front of Baltimore’s City Hall again on Thursday, giving voice to frustration over the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man in police custody, as the department turned over its investigative findings to prosecutors. The latest development comes amid a disputed allegation that a prisoner sharing a police van with Gray, who died of spinal injuries while in police custody, told officers that Gray appeared to be intentionally trying to injure himself, based on what he heard inside the van. Investigators believe Freddie Gray suffered serious head injuries while he was in a police transport van, although they have not concluded how the injuries occurred. On Friday morning, six Baltimore police officers have been charged with several counts, including one who was charged with second-degree murder, in the high-profile death of Freddie Gray. Warrants were issued for their arrest.

Two People Shot in Ferguson as New Protests Break Out

At least two people were shot in separate incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, on late Tuesday and early Wednesday as hundreds of demonstrators gathered in support of protests in Baltimore. Police are having a difficult time investigating because of the rocks being thrown at them. At this point police are not sure if the (shootings are) linked to the protest or not. The renewed tensions in Ferguson follow rioting in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray is the latest black man to die after an encounter with police. Similar deaths over the last year include Michael Brown in Ferguson; Eric Garner in New York; and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Demonstrations against Police Brutality Spread across the U.S.

From coast to coast, marchers are taking to the streets to support Baltimore protesters and complain that police brutality is a problem in their own towns, CNN reports. Demonstrations have unfolded in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis, New York, Washington, and Ferguson, Missouri. Protests are planned Thursday in Cincinnati and Philadelphia. Demonstrations in Seattle; Portland, Oregon; and Oakland, California, are on tap for Friday, which is also May Day or International Workers Day — often used to call attention to issues affecting the working class and minorities. Frustrated by what they consider an unsatisfying trickle of answers, those angry over the death of Freddie Gray plan protests from coast to coast Friday.

Obamacare State Exchanges Struggling Financially

Nearly half of the 17 insurance marketplaces set up by the states and the District under President Obama’s health law are struggling financially, presenting state officials with an unexpected and serious challenge five years after the passage of the landmark Affordable Care Act. Many of the online exchanges are wrestling with surging costs, especially for balky technology and expensive customer-call centers — and tepid enrollment numbers. To ease the fiscal distress, officials are considering raising fees on insurers, sharing costs with other states and pressing state lawmakers for cash infusions. Some are weighing turning over part or all of their troubled marketplaces to the federal exchange, HealthCare.gov, which is now working smoothly.

DOE’s Green Energy Loans Fail to Make a Profit

The Energy Department’s green energy loan program is now expected to lose money despite earlier media reports that such loans would net the government a profit. The Government Accountability Office says the DOE’s oft-touted $28 billion loan program will cost taxpayers $2.21 billion over the lifetime of the loans. The costs to taxpayers for green loans has risen about $500 million as “the result of loan guarantee defaults” from companies like Solyndra and Abound Solar. The fees DOE has collected have not been sufficient to cover all of its administrative expenses for the program because the “fees on the current loan guarantees were too low to cover ongoing monitoring costs, the GAO reported. This stands in sharp contrast to media reports from last year suggesting the DOE’s green loan program would net taxpayers $5 billion based on Obama administration (inflated) estimates.

Clinton Foundation Reportedly Failed to Disclose Identities of 1,100 Donors

A charity tied with the Clinton Foundation reportedly failed to reveal the identities of at least 1,100 donors, in the latest detail to emerge about the group’s finances following days of intense public scrutiny. The Canada-based Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership is suspected of being a potential gateway for anonymous Clinton Foundation donations from foreign business leaders because Canadian law prohibits charities from disclosing individual donors without their permission. The Washington Post reports the partnership sends much of its money to the Clinton Foundation. Two of the partnership’s most-known donors – the group’s founder and mining executive Frank Giustra and another miner Ian Tefler – are featured in a tell-all book “Clinton Cash” for their roles in deals that resulted in Russia being in control of many of the world’s uranium deposits in what Bloomberg News calls a money-laundering scheme.

Mobile News Rising as Print Decline Continues

For news publishers, it’s becoming a mobile world. More readers are coming from mobile devices than computers for 39 of the top 50 digital news sites, influencing publishers’ decisions on a wide range of editorial and advertising strategies, said a new Pew Research Center study released Wednesday. Growth in mobile ad spending outpaced all other platforms, explaining publishers’ determination to tailor their content for the small screen. Mobile ad spending rose 78%, accounting for 37% of all digital ad spending. However, visitors using computers “tend to spend more time per visit” than mobile visitors. Newspaper ad revenue fell 4% last year to $19.9 billion — less than half of what it was a decade ago — but local TV news revenue grew 7% to about $20 billion. Newspapers’ weekday and Sunday circulation fell about 3% from 2013 to 2014.

Economic News

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits plunged 34,000 to 262,000 — the lowest level since April 2000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

U.S.-based crude hit a 2015 high of $59.63 on the final trading day of April after declining to $45 last year from a 2014 high of $108 a barrel. Oil has rallied 20%-plus this month, according to Reuters, for its best monthly gain since May 2009.

The economy slowed significantly in the first quarter as cold weather, a strong dollar and shipping snags dampened activity. Gross domestic product — the value of goods and services produced in the U.S. — expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.2% in first quarter, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That’s down from 2.2% in the fourth quarter of last year. Consumer spending, which makes up more than two thirds of economic activity, also slowed, growing 1.9% compared with 4.4% in the fourth quarter. Business investment fell 3.4% after increasing 4.4% in the previous quarter. Exports dropped 7.2% as manufacturers lost sales to other countries with more favorable currency exchange rates.

Eurozone consumer prices stopped falling in April, further easing fears that a slide into deflation could derail the currency area’s fragile economic recovery. The European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat said Thursday that this was the first time since last December that prices haven’t fallen compared to a year earlier.

The gender gap appears to be closing when it comes to CEO pay. So far, 21 of the 22 current female CEOs in the Standard & Poor’s 500 have reported their latest compensation and they were paid an average of $18.8 million during their latest fiscal years, according to a USA TODAY analysis. That far exceeds the average $12.7 million paid to the 455 current male CEOs in the S&P 500 that have reported compensation data for the same time period. However, the proportion of female CEOs remains low, about 4.5% of all CEOs in the S&P 500.

The majority of H&R Block clients who received federal help to pay for their health insurance in 2014 got an unwelcome surprise when it came to their refund. Sixty-one percent of those filers saw their refunds reduced by an average of $729 — or a third of the group’s overall average of $2,195, the consumer tax services provider said Monday. The reason for the decline: they’d underestimated what their 2014 household income would be when they signed up for insurance on a health exchange back in 2013. The lower your income, the higher your federal subsidy. Filers who remained uninsured for more than three months in 2014 were subject to a penalty. The average penalty paid was $178 among its affected clients, H&R Block said.

Germany

German police overnight thwarted a terrorist plot by a radicalized couple, a plan they suspect involved bombing a bicycle race near Frankfurt. German prosecutors and police said that a man and a woman had been arrested in the Frankfurt-area town of Oberursel on suspicion of planning a Boston-style attack. Prosecutor Albrecht Schreiber said police recovered a pipe bomb ready to be used, 100 rounds of 9mm ammunition, a gun, the essential parts of a G-3 assault rifle and 3 liters of hydrogen peroxide, which becomes explosive at high concentrations and has been used in multiple terror plots in the West, including the 2005 London bombings. The couple had ties to radical Islamist circles in the Frankfurt area.

Iran

A U.S.-flagged ship was recently intercepted by an Iran Revolutionary Guard naval patrol, the U.S. Navy revealed to CNN Tuesday. The incident occurred last Friday when four Iranian naval vessels surrounded the U.S.-flagged Maersk Kensington in the Strait of Hormuz. The episode came ahead of an encounter Tuesday in which Iran Revolutionary Guard patrol boats fired shots at a commercial cargo ship and then intercepted the vessel. The crew of the Maersk Tigris container ship is “safe and under the circumstances in good spirits. The U.S. Navy has dispatched one maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft to observe and monitor the situation. The Navy will accompany ships in and around the Persian Gulf following threats and harassment from Iranian patrol boats, a Defense Department official said Thursday.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 93 suspected terrorists with ties to ISIS Tuesday, including two who were allegedly planning a car bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh. Other potential targets for some of those arrested included residential compounds and prisons. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told the Associated Press there have been five ISIS-related attacks across the kingdom in recent months that have killed 15 civilians and security personnel. But he said Saudis have largely ignored ISIS’s calls to take up arms against their government and attack the Shiite minority, security forces and foreigners living in the kingdom.

Nigeria

Nigerian troops rescued an additional 160 women and children from Boko Haram within days after they found hundreds of other hostages, the military said Thursday. Earlier, Nigerian troops rescued 200 girls and 93 women Tuesday in the Sambisa Forest in the northeastern part of the country, the Nigerian Armed Forces announced on its official Twitter account. The forest is a stronghold for the militant Boko Haram group and is not far from Chibok where 200 girls abducted in April 2014. However, girls rescued from Boko Haram terror camps in Sambisa Forest on Tuesday are “not the Chibok girls,” Nigerian Army spokesman Sani Usman said. Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, has been kidnapping females for years and has hundreds in their custody.

Ukraine

Separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine have resumed the use of rocket launchers that should have been withdrawn under a February peace deal, Ukrainian military officials said Tuesday. The army said in a statement that rebels fired Grad rockets Monday evening at the government-held town of Avdiivka, which lies on the fringes of the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk. There has been a recent uptick in clashes along the front separating government and rebel forces. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, military spokesman for the Ukrainian presidential administration, said one soldier had been killed and 14 injured during the past day’s unrest.

Mexico

Murders in Mexico fell for a third straight year in 2014 — the most pronounced declines occurring along the U.S. border — a sign the country is slowly stabilizing after gruesome drug wars. There were 15,649 people murdered in Mexico in 2014, a 13.8% reduction from the previous year and down from a peak of 22,480 in 2011. Five of the six Mexican states that border the USA reported a combined drop of 17.7% in the number of homicides. The reduction in homicides does not mean Mexico has completely solved its security problems. Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Mexicans still face extremely high levels of kidnappings, extortion and other violent crimes. American travelers have also been attacked. The U.S. State Department issued a warning April 13 that said U.S. citizens continue to be victims of carjackings, robberies and other violent crimes.

Earthquakes

A 6.8-magnitude earthquake was recorded in Papua New Guinea on Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey said. There no immediate reports of damage or loss of life. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said hazardous tsunami waves were possible within 186 miles of the epicenter of the quake, which was was centered about 70 miles from Papua New Guinea’s capital, Kokopo. Earthquakes are common in this area.

Volcanoes

Chile’s Calbuco volcano erupted yet again Thursday, forcing officials to evacuate nearby residents from their ash-covered homes once more. The hot ash and rocks shot more than 2.5 miles into the air, disrupting clean-up for thousands of nearby villagers. The first eruption occurred last Wednesday, and the first round of evacuations followed. Now, residents are on the move again. The eruptions at Calbuco are the first in more than four decades. More than 4,500 people have been evacuated since the Calbuco roared back to life April 22, sending ash about 11 miles into the sky.

Landslides

A massive landslide in a remote province in northeastern Afghanistan on Tuesday killed at least 52 people, a provincial official said. The stricken area in Badakhshan province is cut off from the rest of the country, covered in snow and is only accessible from the air, significantly hampering any rescue efforts. Badakhshan is one of the poorest and least developed regions of Afghanistan, and regularly suffers huge landslides when the snows begin to melt in spring. Tuesday’s landslide struck early in the morning in the province’s Khawahan district, near the border with Tajikistan

Weather

As we wrap up April and head into May, a pattern change in the atmosphere is about to bring not just a tease of warmth, but finally some longer-lasting warm temperatures for most of the eastern two-thirds of the nation. The warm-up is already underway in the Northeast and Great Lakes, as the stubborn, deep pocket of cold air aloft that had been plaguing the region for days now shifts farther into the north Atlantic Ocean. Highs are in the 60s and a few 70s over much of the Great Lakes and Northeast.

The water level on Nevada’s Lake Mead dropped below 1,080 feet Tuesday for the first time in since it was filled 78 years ago Hoover Dam was built along the Colorado River. Southern Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is slated to complete a third water intake dubbed the “third straw” this summer to keep the water flowing to communities that need it even if water levels keep falling. The National Park Service says the intake for the “third straw” will be at 860 feet. The second intake would be usable until the lake level falls to about 1,000 feet.

Soil moisture is a critical indicator of drought. For decades, ground observations have done the heavy lifting but they’re few and far between. That’s why NASA spent $1 billion to launch a soil moisture monitoring satellite earlier this year. After months of calibration, the satellite, dubbed the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission or SMAP, has sent back the first global view of soil moisture. The shifts in soil moisture from week to week or year to year is important information for people working in fields and forests. It provides a key measure of drought and an indicator for forecasting out river flows, reservoir levels, wildfire season severity and crop irrigation availability.

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