Signs of the Times (7/26/16)

Charges Dropped Against Anti-Abortion Activists behind Planned Parenthood Videos

A Texas judge on Tuesday dismissed the last remaining charge against two anti-abortion activists who made undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood officials selling baby body parts. District Judge Brock Thomas dismissed the charge of tampering with government records against 27-year-old David Daleiden and 63-year-old Sandra Merritt upon the request of the Harris County prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors had alleged that Daleiden and Merritt used fake driver’s licenses to conceal their identities while dealing with Planned Parenthood. “The dismissal of the bogus, politically motivated charges against [Center for Medical Progress] project lead David Daleiden and investigator Sandra Merritt is a resounding vindication of the First Amendment rights of all citizen journalists, and also a clear warning to any of Planned Parenthood’s political cronies who would attack whistleblowers to protect Planned Parenthood from scrutiny,” Daleiden said in a statement.

A Big Win against Birth Control Mandate

A federal judge ruled Thursday that forcing insurers to include birth control coverage despite their conflicting religious convictions is unconstitutional. The case addresses a section of Obamacare that requires insurers to pay for birth control. Missouri Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, and his wife filed a lawsuit arguing that being forced to pay for birth control coverage violates their Catholic faith. They cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says the federal government cannot “substantially burden” religious rights unless the law is the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest. U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton agreed, saying the federal government cannot legally compel Wieland and his wife to pay for birth control coverage.

  • Whether or not birth control is an issue for Christians, this is an important case in defense of religious freedom.

California Religious Liberty Threat ‘Most Significant’ Ever’

A bill rushing through California’s state legislature could deliver a fatal blow to Christian education, legal experts warn. “I’ve been practicing religious freedom law for about 20 years now and I believe this bill is one of the most significant threats that there has ever been to religious freedom,” Greg Baylor, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said at the Heritage Foundation. Hours before adjourning for July recess, a California State Senate committee advanced a bill that seeks to punish faith-based colleges and universities for holding biblical beliefs about marriage and sexuality. If signed into law, SB 1146 could expose schools to punitive litigation and the loss of millions in student aid. Schools wanting to avoid any penalty would have to dissolve student codes of conduct based on biblical teachings about sex and wouldn’t be able to base hiring decisions on religious convictions about sexuality, gender identity, and marriage.

Same-Sex Marriage Fallout: Woman Sues to Marry an Animal

A Kentucky woman filed a suit against County Clerk Kim Davis, among others, because the state refused to let her marry an animal. Elizabeth Ording is suing Davis, Gov. Matt Bevin and Attorney General Andy Beshear. The 56-page lawsuit says Ording’s marriage to an animal wouldn’t be that different than same-sex marriage, according to WDRB. Ording says the county attorney told her she could have a wedding, but the state wouldn’t recognize the marriage. Earlier this month, Mark “Chris” Sevier filed a lawsuit against the same defendants because he was unable to marry his computer.  Sevier, a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School whose law license was suspended in 2011, previously filed similar suits in Texas and in Florida. Sevier says he is trying to prove that marriage between a same-sex couple has the same legitimacy as a human marrying an inanimate object.

Marriage and Divorce Rates Both Down in U.S.

Declining marriage and divorce rates go hand in hand and reveal a cultural skepticism about relationship definition, according to a new report from The Heritage Foundation. The marriage rate has been trending downward for decades. From 2004 to 2014, the U.S. marriage rate fell by 20 percent, a drop of 8.3 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women over age 15, according to Heritage’s 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity. The report also noted the divorce rate’s steady decline since 1979, from 5.3 per 1,000 people to 3.2 per 1,000 people in 2014—a 40 percent drop. Julie Baumgardner, president and CEO of First Things First and author of the report’s essay on divorce, says, “Widespread divorce led people to believe that although relationships are good, relationship definition is risky.” Generation X children lived through the rise of the divorce culture in the ’70s and early ’80s, almost half within broken homes. The result for Gen Xers: risk avoidance, undefined relationships, and a widespread belief that marriage is just a piece of paper, she says.

Russia Accused of Playing in U.S. Politics through Hacking of Emails

Forensic evidence suggests Russian intelligence agencies were behind the release of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, reports the New York Times. Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager argued that the emails were leaked “by the Russians for the purpose of helping Donald Trump.” The emails, released first by a supposed hacker and later by WikiLeaks, exposed the degree to which the Democratic apparatus favored Hillary Clinton over her primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and triggered the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party chairwoman, on the eve of the convention’s first day. Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyber-operations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year.

Economic News

Consumer confidence held steady in July despite increased market volatility after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union. A closely watched index of Americans’ perceptions of the economy and labor market dipped marginally to a still-solid 97.3 from a downwardly revised 97.4 last month, the Conference Board said Tuesday. Consumers’ view of present conditions improved while their short-term outlook worsened slightly. The measure had bounced back sharply in June after two straight drops. Consumers are benefiting from low gasoline prices, reduced household debt and solid job growth. Consumer confidence can be an indicator of spending, which makes up the majority of economic activity and was surprisingly strong in the second quarter.

Summer gas prices haven’t been this cheap since 2004 — and there are growing signs they could slip even lower. Cheap gas is being fueled by sub-$50 oil prices. But there’s another hidden force at play: a serious oversupply problem. It seems that the well-chronicled glut in crude oil has spread to gasoline and other products. Despite the fact that it’s the heart of summer driving season, the U.S. is sitting on 241 million barrels of gasoline in storage. That’s the highest level for this time of the year since the government began tracking this metric in 1990. Nationwide, average gas prices dropped to $2.18 a gallon on Friday, according to AAA. That compares with $2.32 a gallon last month and about $2.75 this time last summer. Crude crumbled to three-month lows of $42.36 a barrel on Tuesday. That leaves oil down 12% in July.

The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index posted 5% annual growth in May, the same as in April. It marked the fourth straight month of flat or falling home prices on an annual basis after a long string of increases. Portland, Ore., Seattle and Denver continued their lead among the 20 cities, while former front runners such as San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles lost some steam. Existing home sales also maintained a robust growth, according to figures released last week. The annual rate climbed to 5.57 million in June, the highest since February 2007.

Seven of the 10 metro areas with the nation’s highest concentrations of manufacturing jobs had unemployment rates below the 4.7% national rate in May, the latest local data available, according to figures from the Labor Department, Wells Fargo and Moody’s Analytics. The overall U.S. rate was 4.9% in June. Buffeted by automation and foreign imports that decimated the country’s manufacturing payrolls, employment in these communities is likely to remain well below pre-recession levels.  But at least the towns are growing jobs once again. Factories have been helped by the housing and auto recoveries, and they are now trying to diversify their industrial bases. Manufacturers are competing against cheaper imports by automating some functions and providing better quality and service.

Israel

In the latest indication that efforts to isolate Israel diplomatically are failing, a delegation of political and business leaders from Saudi Arabia were in Jerusalem on Friday to openly declare their interest in deepening ties with the Jewish State. However, during their meetings with Israeli leaders they made it clear that moves towards normalized ties would only come following a resolution of the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. Despite its unofficial and low-key nature, the visit was widely reported on in the Arab world and roundly condemned by a few governments and most terrorist organizations.

Islamic State

The deadly tentacles of ISIS have spread quickly from the terrorist group’s epicenter in Iraq and Syria to points around the globe. Since declaring its caliphate in June 2014, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has conducted or inspired more than 125 terrorist attacks in 27 countries other than Iraq and Syria, where its carnage has taken a much deadlier toll. Those attacks have killed at least 1,767 people and injured thousands more.

Iraq

Terror once again struck the streets of Iraq’s capital Sunday, after a suicide bombing killed at least 21 people in a residential neighborhood in northern Baghdad. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, which also injured more than 35 others. Sunday’s attack came just weeks after the deadliest terror attack in war-weary Baghdad in years, when a suicide truck bomb plowed into a busy shopping district killing almost 300 people. Analysts say this demonstration of the terror group’s capacity to strike at the heart of the capital may force a delay of the long-awaited government push to retake the northern city of Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control.

Germany

One person is dead and at least 10 hurt after an explosion at a restaurant/bar Sunday night in Ansbach, Germany. Authorities say the attacker, a 27-year-old Syrian who was denied asylum, died in the blast when the device he was carrying exploded. Carda Seidel, the mayor of Ansbach, told reporters Sunday that the blast was deliberate, the Guardian reported. The blast took place outside of a popular music festival. Ansbach is a community near Nuremberg. About 2,000 people were evacuated from the nearby, open-air music festival, the BBC reported. The Islamic State claims responsibility for suicide attack in Ansbach, Germany. The Syrian suicide bomber left behind a video on a mobile phone pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and said he was engaging in an act of revenge against Germans, Last Friday, nine people died during a shooting rampage in Munich and a week ago, several people were hurt during an ax attack on board a train in Wurzberg.

  • The free and open welcome Germany gave to Islamic migrants is turning deadly

Turkey

Turkish authorities issued warrants on Monday for the detention of 42 journalists and took 31 academics into custody, official media reported, as the government pressed ahead with a crackdown against people allegedly linked to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric following a failed coup. Security officials also conducted a raid against the military’s Istanbul-based War Academy, detaining 40 people. Prosecutors requested their detention to shed light on the coup plot and the warrants are not related to their “journalistic activities, but possible criminal conduct,” a senior official in Erdogan’s office said in a text message sent to foreign media. The government declared a three-month state of emergency and detained more than 13,000 people in the military, judiciary and other institutions following the foiled coup.

France

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a French church Tuesday in which an elderly priest was killed and four hostages seized during mass. The two attackers, whom the terror group described as “soldiers,” according to the Associated Press, were later shot and killed by police. Another person inside the church, near the Normandy city of Rouen, was seriously injured. The Islamic State’s Amaq news agency made the claim of the militants’ involvement, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors extremist online activity. However, it was not clear whether the assailants had direct contact with the terror group.

Somalia

Two suicide bombers detonated explosives-laden cars on Tuesday outside the U.N. Mine Action Service offices and a Somali army checkpoint in Mogadishu, killing 13 people, including seven U.N. guards, Somali police officials said. The two blasts took place near the African Union base. Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels, al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the bombings, according to the group’s Andalus radio station. Unlike previous attacks by al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida, gunmen did not accompany the suicide bomber. Unlike previous attacks by al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida, gunmen did not accompany the suicide bomber, said police Capt. Mohamed Hussein. The first suicide car bomber tried to speed through the barrier at the U.N. office but guards shot at the car. A second suicide blast targeted a checkpoint manned by Somali security forces near the African Union base in Mogadishu.

Japan

At least 19 are dead and 26 injured Tuesday after a former employee of a care facility for mentally disabled people near Tokyo allegedly broke into the facility early Tuesday and went room to room stabbing patients with a knife. He was arrested without incident after he turned himself in at a police station nearby, according to Kyodo News Service. The apparently disturbed man had earlier warned authorities that he might carry out the attack, according to police and local news media. It is one of the worst mass killings in Japan since World War II. Police said the man, identified as Satoshi Uematsu, told them “I did it,” and “It’s better that the disabled disappear,” according to Kyodo. According to police, Uematsu delivered a handwritten letter to the official residence of the House of Representatives speaker in February, at about the time he left his job for personal reasons, in which he suggested that he was planning to kill people at the facility. He indicated the attack would take place at night, when fewer staff were on duty. Uematsu was hospitalized until March on the grounds that he was a threat to others; no further details on his condition or why he was released were available Tuesday.

Mexico

Two mayors were killed Saturday in Mexico. The Saturday slayings took place hundreds of miles apart and were apparently unrelated. But a group representing Mexico’s mayors isn’t waiting for more details about the attacks before it calls on government officials to take action. In a statement Sunday, the National Association of Mayors said Mexico’s government should create a system for providing stepped up security for local officials in light of the killings. Since 2006, when Mexico’s government began a crackdown on cartels and violence surged in some parts of the country, 40 mayors have been killed, according to the association.

Environment

A huge toxic algae bloom in Utah has closed one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi River, sickening more than 100 people and leaving farmers scrambling for clean water for days during the hottest part of the year. The bacteria commonly known as blue-green algae has spread rapidly to cover almost all of 150-square-mile Utah Lake, turning the water bright, anti-freeze green with a pea soup texture and leaving scummy foam along the shore. “It smells like something is rotting,” said Jason Garrett, water quality director for the Utah County Health Department. “We don’t have an idea of how long this event will last.” Toxic algae is a problem around the country. An enormous outbreak in Florida is now fouling beaches on the Atlantic coast, and a 2014 outbreak at Lake Erie left more than 400,000 people in the Toledo area without tap water for two days. The lake is largely fed by treated wastewater as well as agricultural runoff, said Erica Gaddis, assistant director for the Utah Division of Water Quality.

Wildfires

Flames raced down a steep Southern California hillside “like a freight train,” forcing crews to evacuate another 10,000 homes by Monday as a wildfire raged through tinder-dry canyons there. The fire has destroyed at least 18 homes in northern Los Angeles County. It gained ferocious new power two days after it broke out, sending so much smoke in the air that planes making drops on it had to be grounded for part of the day Sunday. Fire officials said they’ve ordered about 20,000 residents to leave their homes. Officials said late Sunday that the blaze had burned through at least 57 square miles of brush north of Los Angeles — but that number is expected to jump Monday when better assessment is done at daylight. It’s just 10 percent contained. A burned body was discovered Saturday in an area northeast of Los Angeles Saturday. Thousands of evacuees were allowed to return to their homes just north of Los Angeles Monday night after more than 33,000 acres were scorched.

As of Monday, 31,790 wildfires have burned 3 million acres of land in the U.S. However, that is less than the 10-year average for this date (43,662 wildfires, 3.7 million acres) and much less than last year at this time (34,287 wildfires, 5.5 million acres.

Weather

Six heat-related deaths have been reported as dangerously high temperatures continue to scorch portions of the Eastern U.S. where heat advisories remain in effect into Monday. Cody Flom, 12, suffered a fatal heat stroke while hiking at the Sonoran Mountain Preserve in Phoenix on Friday, where temperatures soared to a sweltering 111 degrees. Heat indexes well over 100 degrees are expected across dozens of states in the nation’s central and eastern portions, the National Weather Service forecasts. A heat index, or the “feels like” temperature, combines the effects of temperature and humidity on the human body. Temperatures also could reach the century mark Monday afternoon in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

Tropical Storm Darby hammered Hawaii with torrential downpours overnight Sunday and into Monday morning, but the island chain escaped relatively unscathed as the storm passed Monday afternoon. In just three hours’ time overnight Sunday, Darby dumped as much as 7 inches of rain on eastern Oahu. That led to ponding along Interstate H-1 near Honolulu, and the city’s police department asked drivers to stay off the roads until the flooding subsided. The heavy rains kept city crews busy dealing with numerous sewage spills across Oahu — including 42,000 gallons at the Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant and 1,000 gallons near the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The rains also flooded Kalihi Stream on Oahu, creating a muddy scene on Dillingham Boulevard at a major intersection.

At least seven people have died and 1.2 million others were displaced from their homes in India’s northeastern state of Assam after heavy monsoon rains and flooding inundated the country. Army soldiers rescued thousands of people using boats. Many residents were stranded on the roofs of their homes and had to be taken to a safe location. Much of Assam is under water after the Brahmaputra and its tributaries breached their banks, with 18 of the state’s districts affected. Large chunks of main roads and highways have been washed away. District officials said more than 200 relief camps have been set up for flood victims.

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