Signs of the Times (6/13/15)

Christian Pastors Vow Civil Disobedience over Gay Marriage

Over 40,000 pastors and church leaders have signed a pledge to stand for traditional marriage, even if the Supreme Court decides to legalize gay marriage this month. The civil disobedience campaign states that pastors will refuse to recognize gay marriage and accept whatever punishment may come with their stance. The pledge posted on defendmarriage.org states that signers agree to “resist all government efforts to require them to accept gay marriage, and they will accept any fine and jail time to protect their religious freedom and the freedom of others.” It continues, “On the matter of marriage, we stand in solidarity. We affirm that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of Creation. Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman, ordered toward the union of the spouses, open to children and formative of family.”

Court Upholds Texas Pro-Life Law Closing Abortion Clinics

A Texas pro-life law that is credited with closing multiple abortion clinics and saving an estimated 9,900 babies from abortion has been upheld in a federal appeals court. Life News reports House Bill 2 (HB2) requires abortion clinics to meet state safety standards and abortion-performing doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. The legislation also bans abortions performed at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Critics of the law argued that the strict regulations caused too many clinics to close their doors, making it difficult for Texas women to find a clinic that could perform abortions. But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the legislation that intends to protect pregnant women.

18,000 Babies Die Each Year in U.S. from Late Term Abortions

Pro-life group leaders and other are joining with Sen. Lindsey Graham this week to introduce the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The act would stop late abortions when unborn babies are thought to be capable of feeling pain, according to Life News. According to Congressman Trent Franks, more than 18,000 late term abortions are performed every year on healthy unborn babies in America. “These are innocent and defenseless children who can not only feel pain, but who can survive outside of the womb in most cases, and who are torturously killed without even basic anesthesia,” he said. “Abortion is the human rights issue of our time,” said Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America.

Al-Qaeda Displaced by Islamic State

Two of Al Qaeda’s spiritual leaders have said that the terror organization is barely functioning after losing money and manpower to the rapidly rising Islamic State group. Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi have described Al Qaeda as being without “organizational structure,” the Guardian reports. Qatada, who was deported to Jordan from Britain in 2013 to face terrorism charges, also acknowledges that ISIS has gotten the better of Al Qaeda in the propaganda wars as well as those fought on the battlefield. The Guardian report traces the beginning of Al Qaeda’s downfall to the ascension of Zawahiri as Al Qaeda’s leader following the death of Usama bin Laden in May 2011. While Zawahiri has been forced to move in secret in the remote mountain regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, hundreds of thousands of militants have flocked to the new battlefields in Syria and Iraq.

Democratic Revolt Sidelines Obama Trade Agenda

House Democrats revolted Friday against President Obama, voting down legislation they historically support in a tactical move to slow down efforts to renew “fast track” trade authority, in one of the few occasions where Obama and Republicans were aligned. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Pelosi, who had remained neutral in the weeks leading up to the vote, announced on the floor she would oppose trade adjustment assistance (TAA) and the subsequent vote on trade promotion authority (TPA), commonly known as fast track. The moment marked a rare divide between Obama and Pelosi on a major policy issue. Obama is seeking the renewed authority, which creates an expedited process to move trade bills through Congress, in order to finalize negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations.

Pope Establishes Tribunal to Judge Bishops in Sex-Abuse Cases

Pope Francis has created a church tribunal to judge bishops who fail to protect children from sexually abusive priests, the Vatican announced Wednesday, a move long sought by abuse victims and their advocates. The new court will be part of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church’s chief watchdog. Since 2001, the congregation has judged priests accused of sexual abuse, but there has been no Vatican office with a similar role to judge bishops. The tribunal was proposed by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was appointed last year by Pope Francis.

Democratic Revolt Sidelines Obama Trade Agenda

House Democrats revolted Friday against President Obama, voting down legislation they historically support in a tactical move to slow down efforts to renew “fast track” trade authority in one of the rare occasions that Obama and Republicans were aligned. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who had remained neutral in the weeks leading up to the vote, announced on the floor she would oppose trade adjustment assistance (TAA) and the subsequent vote on trade promotion authority (TPA), commonly known as fast track. The moment marked a rare divide between Obama and Pelosi on a major policy issue. Obama is seeking the renewed authority, which creates an expedited process to move trade bills through Congress, in order to finalize negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation pact between the U.S. and Asia-Pacific nations. Obama, who made a rare appearance on Capitol Hill Friday morning, apparently did little to assuage Democratic concerns, particularly in the face of significant opposition from labor unions and liberal activist groups.

California Orders Large Water Cuts for Farmers

California regulators ordered farmers and others who hold some of the state’s strongest water rights Friday to stop pumping from three major waterways in one of the country’s prime farm regions. The order enacting record cuts by senior water rights holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and delta watersheds followed mandatory water curtailment earlier this year to cities and towns and to farmers with less iron-clad water rights. The order applies to 114 entities that have claims dating back to 1914 or earlier. It will force thousands of water users in the state to tap groundwater, buy water at rising costs, use previously stored water or go dry. Economists and agriculture experts say growing of some crops will shift in the short-term to regions with more water, so the water cuts are expected to have little immediate impact on food prices.

15% of Seniors Account for 41% of Medicare Spending

Two-thirds of traditional Medicare beneficiaries older than 65 have multiple chronic conditions, according to a USA TODAY analysis of county-level Medicare data. More than 4 million — about 15% —account for more than 41% of the $324 billion spent on traditional Medicare. As Baby Boomers begin to move into the Medicare years, they are — by the measure of medical diagnoses — sicker than their predecessors, researchers say. Yet they also are living longer, leaving them to grapple with diseases such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart failure, depression and even Alzheimer’s for years — sometimes decades. The result: neither the medical system nor most seniors are prepared for the financial crisis ahead.

Underage & Binge Drinking Down in U.S.

Underage drinking and binge drinking rates among young people are on the decline across the USA, a new government study finds. A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released Thursday found underage drinking among all U.S. residents age 12 through 20 dropped 6.1%. Underage binge drinking decreased 5.1%. The survey examined the years 2002 to 2013. In the final year of the study, 22.7% of the nation’s young people reported that they had an alcoholic drink in the last 30 days.

Disconnected: 1 in 7 Youths Neither Working Nor in School

One in seven, or nearly 14%, of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected,” meaning they are neither working nor in school, according to a study of nearly 100 cities by Measure of America, an initiative of the Social Science Research Council. When racial segregation in city neighborhoods was taken into account, the disparities were even starker. On a national level, 21.6% of black youths were considered disconnected compared with only 11.3% of whites and 7.9% of Asian Americans. Meanwhile, over 20% of Native Americans and 16% of Latino youths were neither working or in school. The report wasn’t totally bleak. It found that the disconnected youth population has fallen by about 280,000 since its peak in 2010, the height of the Great Recession. The report also highlighted the importance of reconnecting these youths through second chance programs, such as job training programs, even though such initiatives can be costly.

Bird Flu Leads to Egg Shortage, Higher Prices

The recent bird flu outbreak is wreaking havoc on the nation’s poultry industry and supply of eggs. About 31.5 million of the more than 350 million egg-laying birds in the country have had to be killed so far. Texas-based supermarket owner H-E-B recently announced it is limiting the number of cartons of eggs its customers can buy at all its stores. The supply issues are forcing some restaurants to cut back on the number of eggs they use too. Food companies are now paying a lot more for eggs — whether it’s the whole eggs, or the packaged liquid yolk and whites and the frozen egg products. Fast food chain Whataburger said earlier this month that it will only serve egg sandwiches from 5 a.m. through 11 a.m. because of the shortage. The USDA is now forecasting a range of $1.60 to $1.66 for a dozen eggs — up from estimates of $1.30 to $1.36 in May.

CDC Pushes Prevention as Melanoma Rates Double

Rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have doubled in the United States in the past 30 years and will continue to climb unless people minimize exposure to ultraviolet light, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report comes as rising temperatures send sunseekers outside for the allure of bronzed skin. But sunbathers are in denial if they don’t realize the danger posed by ultraviolet light, said Robin Harris, a professor of epidemiology and co-director of the University of Arizona Cancer Skin Cancer Institute in Tucson. More than 90 percent of melanomas are due to skin-cell damage from ultraviolet radiation exposure. Most of that exposure comes from the sun or tanning salons. “There’s still a belief that ‘it’s not going to happen to me and this is something I don’t have to worry about,’ ” Harris said.

  • Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

Ebola Update

It seemed like the number of people contracting Ebola in West Africa was on the decline. But now, officials say that trend has stalled, with dozens of new cases of the deadly virus reported so far this month. Last week, there were 31 new cases of Ebola reported in a growing geographic area in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the World Health Organization said. At the beginning of this week, 14 additional cases were reported. The latest figures mark the second straight week that the number of Ebola cases in West Africa has increased. “The outbreak is not over and the response efforts must be sustained until we get to zero cases throughout the region and are able to stay at zero for several months,” the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response said Thursday.

MERS Update

Eleven people in South Korea have died after contracting the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome; however, all deaths have been among older adults with underlying medical conditions. Amid weeks of gloomy news, there seems to be gradual signs of easing as officials are mulling the re-opening of schools and more people have been released from quarantine after testing negative. By Friday, 1,249 people had been released from quarantine after they tested negative for MERS, reducing the number of people kept in quarantine to 3,680. On Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory, telling American health care providers to watch for MERS symptoms from people coming from South Korea or Middle East countries.

Economic News

Sales increased 1.2%, in May the Commerce Department said Thursday. Extreme winter weather was largely blamed for discouraging consumer purchases through the winter, but spending was weak even in April, prompting many economists to wonder if Americans were ever going to splurge with their hefty savings from lower gasoline prices. Some economists said consumers held back because they weren’t convinced until recently that cheap fuel would be around for the long term.

There were 5.4 million job openings in the U.S. in April — the most in 15 years. Job openings rose to 5.4 million on the last business day of April, the highest point since the series began in December 2000. The number of job openings increased for total private and was essentially unchanged for government. At the industry level, job openings rose over the month in health care and social assistance but fell in arts, entertainment, and recreation.

The United States has overtaken Russia as the biggest oil and natural gas producer in the world in 2014, in what one economist has described as “a changing of the guard of global energy suppliers.” Bloomberg reported Wednesday that U.S. oil production rose to a record 1.6 million barrels a day last year. Natural gas output also soared, which inched America ahead of Russia as a producer of the two combined. The report finds that the oil and gas boom has changed the U.S. economy, allowing the manufacturing sector to rebound as the country produced about 90 percent of the energy it consumed last year.

The crash in global oil prices late last year, with oil prices plunging from nearly $110 to about $45 for a barrel of West Texas crude, came as a surprise to the nation’s oil workers. While there had been booms and busts before, this was supposed to a sustainable renaissance in American energy. And though oil has bounced back a bit — to about $60 a barrel — the pressure on American oil drillers isn’t subsiding. The plunge in oil prices has knocked more than half of the country’s oil and gas rigs offline, as companies shut down wells that can’t turn a profit at prices this low. Since November, 44,000 jobs in oil and gas drilling or supporting industries have vanished.

Oil production from OPEC countries reached 31.3 million barrels per day in May, the highest levels since August 2012. Global production continues to outstrip average demand by more than two million barrels per day. The surplus is sending oil inventories soaring. OPEC’s record output is part of an aggressive effort to keep its market share in the face of fierce competition from the U.S., and others.

Israel

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin hosted visiting US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on Wednesday, speaking for many Israelis by declaring that he was born in Jerusalem and is an Israeli despite a US Supreme Court ruling on Monday overturning a law earlier passed by Congress allowing US citizens born in Jerusalem to mark “Israel” as the country of their birth on official documents. The ruling was based on US policy, going back to 1967, that Jerusalem is not the sovereign territory of Israel.

The U.S. Air Force and the Israeli Air Force signed an historic strategic accord this week, significantly upgrading relations at all levels and cementing one of the closest alliances the Jewish State has. “It is a constitutive moment and a significant milestone in the cooperation between the forces, realized for the first time as signed agreement”, said Brigadier General Ya’akov Sharabani, IAF’s Attaché in Washington. “What makes the ASNR document special is how it codifies everything that the IAF and USAF has been doing together and identifies new areas where we can cooperate”, added Maj. Gen. Lawrence Martin, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs. “In that sense, the ASNR is not only a very practical framework for moving forward the issues both of our air forces care about, but it also clearly serves as evidence of the deep and committed friendship between us.”

Islamic State

Islamic State terrorists are said to be using Libya ‎as an “entry point” into Europe, with intelligence sources on the ground in Africa telling Fox News at least 30 ISIS fighters who left from the country have been “picked up” by the Italians in recent weeks. The purported terrorists all claimed refugee status but American ‎and European agents believe this is a clear indication that ISIS terrorists have come into Europe virtually untouched. “There is no way you can block it,” one of the intelligence sources said. “Libya is now an easy entry point into the E.U. and ultimately into the U.S. for ISIS. They are saying, this is the way to America.” Earlier this week, President Obama authorized up to 450 additional U.S. troops to deploy to Iraq, to help local security forces in the fight against ISIS there. But while American foreign policy continues to focus on ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, many in the region and in American intelligence worry that Libya is actually the most unstable country in the region.

Iraq

A new report claims that 70 percent of Christian-owned houses in Baghdad have been illegally seized. The seizure occurred after approximately one million Christians fled the city; while the homes were empty, title documents were falsified and homes were placed on the market. Iraq’s judiciary is reportedly investigating the situation, but some members of the government are believed to be involved with the illegal confiscation.

Afghanistan

At least 20 Afghan police officers were killed after militants ambushed checkpoints in the country’s volatile southern Helmand province, an official said Saturday. The attack wounded 10 other police officers and the Taliban also seemed to have suffered a high number of casualties. The ambushes late Friday night hit checkpoints in the Musa Qala district, a Taliban stronghold. Since the start of its summer offensive in April, the Taliban have been targeting vulnerable police checkpoints across the country. Last month, a Taliban attack in Helmand’s New Zad district killed at least 19 officers.

Egypt

A suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday near the ancient temple of Karnak in Luxor, one of Egypt’s most famous tourist attractions. Four people, including two policemen, were wounded. Soon after the attack, police exchanged fire with two suspected Islamic militants who had arrived at the site with the suicide bomber, killing both. Luxor, on the east bank of the River Nile and about 420 miles south of the capital Cairo, is visited by millions of tourists every year. It is on the site of Thebes, the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire at its height.

Nigeria

Boko Haram extremists have burned down six northeast Nigerian villages and killed 37 people near the insurgents’ Sambisa Forest stronghold, a survivor said Friday. Ahmed Ajimi, a fighter in the anti-Boko Haram Nigerian Vigilante Group, said many victims of Wednesday night’s attacks were farmers who had recently returned home after soldiers earlier this year forced the extremists out of the area where they had declared an Islamic caliphate. Now they are refugees again, with many survivors suffering gunshot wounds and burns.

Environment

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said it has found that greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aircraft cause climate change and threaten public health and that it plans to take steps to regulate those emissions. When the EPA’s so-called endangerment finding is finalized in 2016, it will follow a similar determination made in 2009 that emissions from car and truck tailpipes also threaten public health because they cause climate change. The commercial aircraft the EPA is proposing to regulate — everything from smaller commuter jets to double-decker super jumbo jets — are the largest source of greenhouse gases in the transportation sector that aren’t currently regulated. They account for 11 percent of all transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., says the EPA

Wildfires

Smoke from dozens of large Canadian wildfires has been blown into parts of the U.S. The smoke was particularly dense Monday and early Tuesday over parts of northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. The fires are scattered from Manitoba to Canada’s Northwest Territory. Fifty active wildfires were burning in Saskatchewan alone, Tuesday, some requiring evacuations.

Around 100 people are under mandatory evacuation orders after the lightning-caused Saddle fire burned through Trinity County, California. About 160 personnel are battling the fire, which has burned 1,000 acres and is expected to expand to the south and west.

Weather

Numerous bouts of heavy rain will impact many states from the Upper Midwest and Plains to the western Gulf Coast into early next week. Flash flooding will be a threat anywhere thunderstorms or large complexes of thunderstorms unleash torrential downpours in a short period of time across those regions. This includes portions of the Southern Plains, where record-breaking rains led to disastrous flooding in May. Although the first one-third of June has thankfully been very dry in Texas, Oklahoma and adjacent parts of Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas, soils remain saturated.

Sweltering conditions are expected there into much of next week in the southeast. High temperatures will be 5 to 15 degrees above where you would expect them for this time of year through at least midweek. This translates into highs generally in the 90s, with a few areas topping the century mark. In addition to the hot and potentially record-breaking temperatures, dew points will be high, making it feel even hotter. Dew points will climb into the upper 60s and 70s for much of the Southeast, especially in southern Georgia, Florida and near the Gulf Coast.

A landslide triggered by heavy rainfall has buried six villages in Nepal’s mountainous northeast and at least 15 people are believed to have been killed. Another 12 people are believed to be missing but details are sketchy because of the remoteness of the area. The landslide hit the villages in Taplejung district at night when people were at home sleeping. The Himalayan nation is still recovering from earthquakes in April and May that killed more than 8,700 people and caused massive damage.

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