Signs of the Times (4/14/16)

Court Dismisses Lawsuit Attempting to Force Catholic Hospital to Do Abortions

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union sued a Catholic health system in an attempt to force its staff to perform abortions, despite their religious and personal pro-life convictions. On March 23, the court examined the evidence to determine whether to dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Trinity Health Corporation. Monday, the federal court threw out the ACLU lawsuit that sought to force the hospital and its staff to commit abortions regardless of their religious and pro-life objections. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys told LifeNews, “No American should be forced to commit an abortion—least of all faith-based medical workers who went into the profession to follow their faith and save lives, not take them.”

50 New Scripture Translations Completed Last Year

Last year, the Bible Societies translated the Bible into 50 different languages. According to BreakingChristianNews.com, those languages account for nearly 160 million people. Along with the translations, 11 communities received their very first full Bible and six received the New Testament. At the end of 2015, in total, the full Bible was available in 563 languages spoken by nearly 5.1 billion people. It is estimated that there are 281 million people with only some parts of the Bible and another nearly 500 million with no Bible translation whatsoever. For example, there are more than 400 unique sign languages in the world, but only the New Testament is available in American Sign Language. There has also been work done on providing the Bible in Braille. In the digital age, the United Bible Societies has also worked to make the Bible available digitally. At the end of 2015, the Digital Bible Library contained about 1,200 Bibles, testaments and portions in about 950 languages.

Citizenship Test Cites Freedom of Religion

Since 2008, government-issued citizenship tests required applicants to circle “freedom of worship” to correctly answer a question about what rights Americans have under the First Amendment. Last year, a senator disputed the wording of that answer, noting Americans actually have “freedom of religion”—a discrepancy the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed this week should be fixed. “At first glance, it appears like a small matter, but it is actually an important distinction for the Constitution and the First Amendment,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “The ‘freedom of religion’ language reflects our right to live a life of faith at all times, while the ‘freedom of worship’ reflects a right simply confined to a particular space and location.” The First Amendment protects the rights of freedom of expression, speech, assembly, and religion, as well as the right to petition the government. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an office under the DHS, changed “religion” to “worship” eight years ago to be more “inclusive” on its naturalization test study materials. “We are in the process of revising our study materials and web content to reflect the change,” said USCIS director Leon Rodriguez.

Cohabitation Rates Rising, Even among Christian Couples

More Christian couples are choosing to cohabit before marriage, according to a Gallup poll. According to WorldMag.com, nearly seven in 10 teens, and almost half of teens with a religious background, support living with their significant other before marriage. Christian couples that live together say they can live together without sex and often choose to live together because of finances and convenience. But others testify that this just doesn’t work out. Mike Mobley, a Dallas church staffer who tried cohabitation, says, “I’ll be the first to tell you from personal experience, [our] excuses do not justify the actions.” He encourages people to find a church because church attendance means couples are four times less likely to cohabit.

ISIS Already in 26 U.S. States

According to a recent in-depth report from George Washington University, ISIS In America, ISIS suspects and recruits are in at least 26 states in America. As of Fall, 2015, there were roughly 250 Americans who were documented to have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria/Iraq to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are currently 900 active investigations against ISIS sympathizers in all 50 states. Since March, 2014: 71 people have been charged for ISIS-related activities; 56 were arrested in 2015 alone; 27 percent were involved in plots to carry out attacks on U.S. soil, 51 percent traveled or attempted to travel abroad to hook up with ISIS.

Many Arab Countries Beginning to See Israel as Their Ally

Since the Arab Spring and over the course of the past half-decade, Arab countries’ stance towards relations with Israel has shifted dramatically, with a growing number of Arab policy makers publicly supporting open and full relations with the Jewish State, reports Breaking Christian News. In January, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General Dore Gold revealed that Israel maintains covert ties with almost all Arab countries. Gold said there is “the willingness in the Arab world for ties with Israel under the table,” terming at as a “dramatic change.” In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added that Israel is experiencing a dramatic and positive shift in its ties with many countries, primarily with the Arab world in the Middle East. “Major Arab countries are changing their view of Israel… they don’t see Israel anymore as their enemy, but they see Israel as their ally, especially in the battle against militant Islam,” Netanyahu said. In a true sign of change in the Arab world, Kuwaiti media personality Yousuf ‘Abd Al-Karim Al-Zinkawi called on all Arab and Muslim states to recognize Israel, openly and without delay.

FCC Kept ‘ObamaPhone’ Fraud Under Wraps Until After Vote to Expand Program

Federal regulators were instructed to keep a massive fraud investigation – concerning the “Obamaphone” program, meant to help get low-income families cellphone access – under wraps until a day after a controversial vote to expand the program, one of those regulators claims. The Federal Communications Commission on Friday announced that it would seek $51 million in damages from a cellphone company that allegedly defrauded the federal Lifeline program of nearly $10 million. The commission’s five members unanimously backed the Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), but Republican commissioner Ajit Pai parted from his colleagues in a partial dissent. According to Pai, he and other commissioners were told not to reveal the details of its investigation until April 1, a day after the FCC voted to expand the Lifeline program.

  • Politics as usual

Authorities Raid Panama Papers Law Firm

Authorities on Tuesday raided the law firm connected to the Panama Papers global corruption scandal. The Associated Press reported that organized crime prosecutors raided the Panama City headquarters of the Mossack Fonseca law firm that is at the center of the scandal. Police officers guarded the perimeter of the offices while prosecutors worked inside. The attorney general’s office told The Associated Press in a statement that investigators aimed to “to obtain documentation linked to the information published in news articles that establish the use of the firm in illicit activities.” Documents leaked from the firm’s offices appear to show a series of tax havens created for the wealthy.

Top 50 U.S. Companies Hold $1.4 Trillion in Cash Offshore

America’s biggest companies are holding about $1.4 trillion in cash offshore to avoid paying billions in U.S. taxes, according to a new report by Oxfam America. Companies are supposed to pay federal taxes on their global profits, but the tax on money made overseas is only due when it’s brought back to the U.S. This policy has encouraged some firms — including Apple (AAPL, Tech30), Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) and Google (GOOGL, Tech30) — to hold huge amounts of cash overseas. Even though large companies have faced public outrage for stashing cash outside their home country, the practice is legitimate and the companies say it would be detrimental to repatriate the money. The U.S. government levies a 35% tax rate on repatriated cash. That’s a much higher rate than many companies currently pay, according to Oxfam. It said Apple’s effective corporate tax rate was 25.9% between 2008 and 2014. Apple holds the most money offshore of any major U.S. company, at $181 billion.

Toxic Oil Loans Creating Problems for Big Banks

The Wall Street firms that bankrolled America’s oil boom continue to suffer losses linked to loans that look increasingly shaky given the crash in crude prices. And big banks are bracing for more oil loans to implode. Bank of America on Thursday announced it set aside $997 million to protect from loan losses, mainly in the bank’s $22 billion energy portfolio. Wells Fargo warned of “significant stress” and “deterioration” in their oil and gas loan portfolio. The problems forced Wells Fargo to add $200 million in loan-loss reserves, its first increase to this rainy-day fund since 2009. And JPMorgan Chase increased its provisions for credit losses by 88%, mostly due to the oil, natural gas and pipeline business. It was enough to cause JPMorgan’s first drop in profits since late 2014.

Economic News – Domestic

U.S. retail sales fell last month as Americans cut back on their car purchases, the latest sign that consumers are reluctant to spend freely. The Commerce Department says sales at retail stores and restaurants fell by a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in March, following a flat reading in February and a drop in January. Americans have been more cautious about spending this year than most economists expected, despite steady job gains and lower gas prices. March’s decline was largely driven by a sharp drop in auto sales, which plunged 2.1%. That was the steepest fall in more than a year. Sales at restaurants and clothing stores also retreated.

The Labor Department says U.S. consumer prices rose a modest 0.1% in March as a drop in grocery prices offset higher energy costs. Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core consumer inflation also increased 0.1%, the smallest gain since August. Over the past year, overall consumer prices are up 0.9% and core inflation 2.2%. Grocery prices fell 0.5% in March for a typical shopping basket while energy prices climbed 0.9%, the most since May. Gasoline prices surged 2.2%.

The nation’s biggest coal company, Peabody Energy (BTU), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Wednesday as the coal industry grapples with the fallout of low natural gas prices, costly regulations and legacy costs. Peabody said that “sustained depressed” coal prices had placed it on the edge of insolvency. Low natural gas prices, the sluggish Chinese economy and U.S. environmental regulatory pressure have compounded the financial pressures facing coal companies, which include costs such as pensions and retiree health care obligations. Peabody has posted four consecutive yearly losses, including a $2 billion loss in 2015 as revenue fell 17% to $5.6 billion.

Federal regulators said Wednesday that five of the country’s largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, still don’t have credible plans for winding down their operations without taxpayer help if they start to fail. These so-called “living wills” are a critical requirement of the 2010 financial reform package, Dodd-Frank, aimed at preventing a repeat of the taxpayer bailouts that took place during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The rejection comes as the banking sector is expected to report weaker financial results for the first quarter of the year. The banking industry sought to soften the findings, arguing that Wall Street today is stronger than it was before the last financial crisis.

The Justice Department announced a $5 billion settlement with Goldman Sachs over the sale of mortgage-backed securities leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. The deal announced Monday resolves state and federal probes into the sale of shoddy mortgages before the housing bubble and economic meltdown. It requires the bank to pay a $2.4 billion civil penalty and an additional $1.8 billion in relief to underwater homeowners and distressed borrowers, along with $875 million in other claims. The agreement is the latest multi-billion-dollar civil settlement reached with a major bank. Other banks that settled in the last two years include Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Nearly 20% of large U.S. corporations that reported a profit on their financial statements in 2012 ended up paying exactly nothing in U.S. corporate income taxes. That’s according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. How can profitable companies end up with a $0 corporate income tax bill? There are a few reasons, according to the GAO. Among them, they may get a lot of tax deductions for losses they had in previous years but carried forward. Or it may be due to write-offs for depreciating assets.

Economic News – International

Oil prices reached a new 2016 high after rumors that Saudi Arabia and Russia have reached a deal to freeze oil output. U.S. crude oil prices jumped 4.5% to $42.17 a barrel, after Russian news agency Interfax reported the deal. The report came ahead of a crucial meeting between OPEC and non-OPEC countries in Doha on Sunday. Investors are hoping the world’s top oil producers will reach a broader deal to control the global oil supply. Prices have tumbled over the last two years because of a major oil glut, where the world has far more oil than it can consume.

Painting a dim picture of the world economy, the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday trimmed its global growth forecast and called for “immediate” action to reduce the increasing risk of recession. The fund largely attributed the weaker outlook to China’s slowdown, the effect of falling oil and other commodity prices on emerging markets, and weak productivity growth and aging labor forces in advanced economies such as the U.S. “Growth has been too slow for too long,” IMF Economic Counsellor Maurice Obstfeld said.

Direct investment by China in the U.S. is on track to hit a record $30 billion in 2016, according to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, which works to promote closer ties between the countries. That’s double last year’s record $15 billion investment. The report estimates that more than 1,900 Chinese-affiliated firms are now established in the U.S., employing roughly 90,000 full-time workers. Tens of thousands more workers are indirectly employed through Chinese firms.

China’s rapid economic rise has turned peasants into billionaires. Many wealthy Chinese are increasingly eager to stow their families, and their riches, in the West, where rule of law, clean air and good schools offer peace of mind, especially for those looking to escape scrutiny from the Communist Party and an anti-corruption campaign that has sent hundreds of the rich and powerful to jail. With its weak currency and welcoming immigration policies, Canada has become a top destination for China’s 1 percenters. According to government figures, from 2005 to 2012, at least 37,000 Chinese millionaires took advantage of a now-defunct immigrant investor program to become permanent residents of British Columbia, the province that includes Vancouver.

Zika Update

The CDC announced Monday that the Zika virus may be ‘scarier than we initially thought,’ saying the mosquito-borne virus could be linked to more birth defects than previously believed.  The Zika virus has now been linked to a second type of autoimmune disorder, according to a small study released Monday. Doctors have known that Zika is associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis. Now, scientists have linked Zika to a condition similar to multiple sclerosis, called acute disseminated encephalomyeltis, or ADEM, a swelling of the brain and spinal cord that affects the myelin, the coating around nerve fibers. The study followed people who were hospitalized in Recife, Brazil because of symptoms that could be caused by Zika, dengue or chikungunya — which are all spread by the same species of mosquito. All of the people had fever followed by a rash. Some also had severe itching, muscle and joint pain and red eyes. Six of those people develop neurological problems that were consistent with autoimmune diseases. Four developed Guillain-Barre syndrome. The other two developed ADEM, according to the paper presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Vancouver.

Islamic State

American airstrikes have killed 25,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria and incinerated millions of dollars plundered by the militants, according to Pentagon officials. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back 40 percent of the militant group’s land in Iraq, the officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of territory in Syria that had been controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the battlefield successes enjoyed by Western-backed forces in the Islamic State’s heartland have done little to stop the expansion of the militants to Europe, North Africa and Afghanistan. The attacks this year in Brussels, Istanbul and other cities only reinforced the sense of a terrorist group on the march, and among American officials and military experts, there is renewed caution in predicting progress in a fight that they say is likely to go on for years.

ISIS claimed victory Wednesday over the Obama administration’s summer shift in allowing hostage negotiations with terrorists, posting an article in the radical Islamist group’s online magazine declaring, “it’s clear that violence is the only message they will respond to.” The article, in the new issue of the Islamic State’s “Dabiq” magazine released Wednesday. It’s illustrated with a picture of an ISIS executioner slitting a hostage’s throat and President Obama smiling in a golf cart. Before killing Foley, ISIS demanded a ransom from his family. U.S. government officials, however, threatened Foley’s family with prosecution if they raised the money to pay the terror group, Foley’s parents, John and Diane, told Fox News in September 2014. But in June, after Foley’s beheading, the Obama administration signaled a minor modification in policy. While the U.S. government wouldn’t pay any outright ransom to terrorists, officials would be allowed to negotiate with terrorists. The government would also cease threatening families with prosecution for trying to pay a ransom.

Syria

The prospects for Syrian peace talks set to resume Wednesday in Geneva are complicated by a recent spike in fighting between government troops and rebel factions around the strategic city of Aleppo. Syrian government troops, backed by Russian aircraft, have been attacking U.S.-backed rebel groups around Aleppo, as well as al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, the Nusra Front, also in the area. U.S. negotiators plan to use the peace talks to push the parties to adhere to the cease-fire agreement, which allows attacks on the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, but not on “legitimate” opposition groups. United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura, who will conduct the talks, said the talks will focus on political transition, governance and constitutional principles.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s top defense official has warned that al Qaeda — the reason the United States first invaded Afghanistan — is “very active” and a “big threat” in the country. A senior U.S. official said they were concerned about al Qaeda leaders in remote areas of the country and there may be many more core operatives in Afghanistan than previously thought. The warnings of al Qaeda’s resurgence come as Afghanistan faces perhaps the most significant summer fighting season in decades, with government security forces facing huge internal challenges, the Taliban gaining ground and ISIS increasing its footprint in the country.

Cameroon

The terrorist group Boko Haram is turning young, kidnapped girls into suicide bombers. One escaped girl explained to CNN that, “They would ask, ‘Who wants to be a suicide bomber?’ The girls would shout, ‘me, me, me.’ They were fighting to do the suicide bombings.” The young girls fought to strap on a bomb, not because they were brainwashed by their captors’ violent indoctrination methods but because the relentless hunger and sexual abuse — coupled with the constant shelling — became too much to bear. They wanted a way out, she says. They wanted an escape from their horrific existence. “There were so many kidnapped girls there, I couldn’t count,” she says. Advocates say that there has been a massive increase in the estimated number of children used as suicide bombers in the four countries where Boko Haram operates, from 4 in 2014 to 44 last year.

Somalia

The U.S. government has conducted two “self-defense” airstrikes in southern Somalia because of an “imminent threat” against American troops in the East African country, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Tuesday. The airstrikes happened late Monday evening and early Tuesday morning against an Al-Shabaab camp north of the town of Kismayo in southern Somalia. The U.S. military has been helping Somali government and African Union forces battle Al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-affiliated militant group that has been waging an insurgency in Somalia for about 10 years with the aim of turning the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The Islamist extremist group hasn’t confined its terror or ambitions to Somalia, as evidenced by other horrific attacks like last year’s massacre at Kenya’s Garissa University College and a 2013 siege of Nairobi’s upscale Westgate Mall.

Environment

More than 100,000 people living and working near the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, have been exposed to harmful levels of lead and arsenic that leaked into the soil of over 500 homes, state authorities say. Between Feb. 29 and March 9, 12 county teams tested about 50 homes daily. All but eight of the 500 homes had levels of lead requiring cleanup, while 45 of the homes had soil lead levels that qualified as hazardous waste. Another 170 homes had lead levels exceeding the federal residential action level, the Los Angeles Times reports. Public health officials analyzed data from nearly 12,000 young children and found that the blood lead levels of kids under the age of six living near the now-closed facility are higher than those living farther from it. These findings add to previous samples collected which showed more than 200 homes near the Exide plant with lead-tainted soil in need of removal, according to Reuters. The agency estimates that deposits of lead dust from the plant extend into neighborhoods within 1.7 miles of the facility.

Earthquakes

A 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck southern Japan’s Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu Island at 9:26 p.m. local time Thursday night, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Local media said the violent shaking sparked fires and destroyed some homes, possibly trapping people inside. The tremor occurred at a depth of 6.2 miles, the USGS also reported. The quake’s epicenter was 4.3 miles southwest of Ueki, and 385 miles south-southeast of Seoul, South Korea. In the hour following the main quake, there were three aftershocks – two measuring 4.8 magnitude and the other a 5.4. Japan’s Meteorological Agency told the Associated Press there was no threat of a tsunami. Japanese Red Cross Kumamoto Hospital said it has admitted or treated 45 people, including five with serious injuries.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Asian nation of Myanmar Wednesday night, but officials were cautiously optimistic that the powerful shaking didn’t result in any deaths. The tremor was a deep 83.7 miles below the surface, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, with an epicenter located 46 miles southeast of Mawlaik and 246 miles north of the capital, Naypyidaw. Because the quake occurred in the sparsely populated jungle, casualties and damage were minimized. Nobody in the area was seriously injured, but nine pagodas were damaged.

Wildfires

Arizona could face the most dangerous fire season in years, according to Gov. Doug Ducey and the state’s chief forester. And it’s already started. “Last year we burned less than 500 acres’ by this time last year, said Jeff Whitney. “So far this year we’ve burned over 2,100 acres.’ Above-average rainfall earlier in the year has resulted in widespread growth of vegetation which is now drying out. Conditions now are very similar to 2002 and 2011. In 2002 the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire burned about 468,000 acres. And the 2011 Wallow Fire consumed more than 538,000 acres.

Weather

For the second time in as many days, Texans were running for cover as large hail fell on the Lone Star State Tuesday night. This time, it was the San Antonio area in line for the damaging storm. Storm reports from the National Weather Service revealed hail as large as 3.5 inches in diameter – bigger than the size of baseballs – fell on the north side of San Antonio Tuesday night. Some residents also said the large hailstones knocked out their windows. The storms also brought heavy rain and strong winds to South Texas Tuesday night with winds gusting as high as 62 mph.

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