Signs of the Times (7/30/16)

Supreme Court Favoring Discrimination over Religious Freedom

The Supreme Court’s defense of religious freedom looks like it’s on the decline. Still reeling from the death of its most devout justice, Antonin Scalia, the high court has put preventing discrimination above protecting religion in a series of cases over the past year, from same-sex marriage to abortion and contraception. By refusing to consider a family-owned pharmacy’s objection to a Washington state regulation forcing it to stock and sell emergency contraceptives, Justice Samuel Alito warned that the court was sending an “ominous sign.” “If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.” Alito said.

Hillary Clinton Promotes Free Tax-Payer Funded Abortions.

During her keynote address to the Democratic convention on Thursday night, Hillary Clinton wasted no opportunity promoting abortion. She began her speech promoting the Democratic Party platform that calls on Americans taxpayers to fund for abortions. The proposed Democratic Party platform this year is more extreme than it has ever been, calling for taxpayer funding of abortion and a repeal of the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment is a legislative provision barring the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortion unless the pregnancy arises from incest, rape, or to save the life of the mother. The Democratic Party platform already supports legalized abortion on demand for any reason up until birth, reports Life News.

Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter-ID Law

Voting rights activists scored legal victories in key presidential election states Friday, the most important being a federal appeals court ruling that North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature enacted new voting restrictions in 2013 to intentionally blunt the growing clout of African American voters. The unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit was a victory for the Justice Department and civil rights groups. Election law experts consider North Carolina’s voter law one of the nation’s most far-reaching. In Wisconsin, where one federal judge already had eased restrictions on voter-ID requirements, a second judge found that additional elements of the law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) were unconstitutional.

Right to Homeschool Children under Attack Again in California

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) has reported that the right to homeschool children is under attack in California. HSLDA reports that its members in the San Benito High School District recently received a letter stating, “Under California Law, a home school is not a private school, nor is it a lawful alternative to public school.” Homeschool advocates were confused as to why this letter was sent because back in 2008, a court case had already established that homeschooling was legal in California. HSLDA questioned why the right to homeschool in California is now under attack once again.

Humana Drops Obamacare to Stop Balance Sheet Losses

After nearly $1 billion in losses last year, Humana, one of the nation’s leading health insurance providers, announced July 21 it is pulling out of Obamacare plans in nearly all states. The announcement came the same day the Obama administration declared it would take legal action against a multi-billion-dollar merger between Humana and another top-five health insurance provider, Aetna. According to Humana, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reforms have had a severe effect on the company, resulting in limited revenue and “increasing the company’s medical and operating costs.” Other insurance companies also are suffering financial difficulties. UnitedHealth Group said in April it would pull out of most Obamacare marketplaces in 2017. UnitedHealth is the biggest health insurance provider in the United States, and has said it lost $475 million on ACA exchanges last year and could lose $500 million this year.

California Risks $135M in Federal Grants over ‘Sanctuary City’ Policy

California state and local law enforcement agencies may have to choose between more than $100 million in federal aid and the “sanctuary city” immigration policies that supporters say are humane, but critics say fuel crime. The policies, whether in writing or just in practice, preclude local law enforcement from working with federal authorities when they catch an illegal immigrant who by law faces deportation. The laws have sparked a national controversy in the wake of dozens of murders and other violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants who local law enforcement did not report to the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans in Congress, saying such non-cooperation is illegal. For California, which enacted the California Trust Act, that could mean as much as $135 million in grants will be withheld. “This irresponsible legislation has already caused the release of thousands of criminals that U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement was trying to deport,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Washington DC-based Center for Immigration Studies.

  • These sanctuary city policies have helped fuel the recent rise in violent crime reported below

Violent Crime on the Rise in U.S.

Violent crime is on the rise so far this year in major cities across the US compared to the number of homicides, rapes, robberies, assaults and shootings that occurred in the same cities by this point in 2015, a new report has found. The midyear violent crime survey released Monday by the Major Cities Chiefs Association shows 307 more homicides so far in 2016, according to data from 51 law enforcement agencies from some of the largest US cities. In addition to a large increase in homicides, major cities in the US have experienced more than 1,000 more robberies, almost 2,000 more aggravated assaults and more than 600 non-fatal shootings in 2016 compared to this time last year. The only category of violent crime not reflecting an increase when compared to last year is rape. The 316 homicides reported by the Chicago Police Department were by far the most of any law enforcement agency included in the survey, a 48% increase over last year.

FBI Put in Charge of Responding to Cyber Attacks

A presidential directive signed by President Obama Tuesday will put the FBI in charge of responding to all cyber threats and give the federal government a more active role in investigating, preventing and mitigating attempts to hack into U.S.-based computer networks. Obama’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the change was necessary because it’s not always clear whether those responsible for a hacking incident are other countries, terrorists or criminals. “This directive establishes a clear framework to coordinate the government’s response to such incidents,” Monaco told a cybersecurity conference at Fordham University in New York Tuesday. “It spells out which federal agencies are responsible. And it will help answer a question heard too often from corporations and citizens alike — ‘In the wake of an attack, who do I call for help?'”

Florida Zika Cases a ‘Game Changer’

Both American athletes and sports fans have canceled plans to travel to Brazil for next week’s Olympics for fear of contracting the Zika virus. Now the apparent spread of Zika to Florida, confirmed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott Friday, means that Americans could face the risk of becoming infected in their own backyards. “This is a game changer,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “I’m concerned that this is just the beginning.” Four people infected with Zika in South Florida likely contracted the virus from local mosquitoes, marking the first time the disease has been transmitted by the insects in the continental U.S., Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Friday. Florida’s Department of Health believes the mosquitos that transmitted the virus are active in a small area just north of downtown Miami. More than 1,650 people in the U.S. have contracted Zika, but until now all were linked to travel to areas outside the U.S. with outbreaks of the virus. Zika, which can cause devastating birth defects, is spreading rapidly in more than 30 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America. The virus primarily spreads through bites from infected mosquitoes, but can also be spread through sex. Only one in five people with Zika develop symptoms, which include rash, fever, muscle aches and headaches.

Six Michigan Employees Criminally Charged in Flint Water Crisis

Six Michigan employees were criminally charged Friday in connection with the Flint water crisis. Charged are three Department of Health and Human Services workers and three Department of Environmental Quality employees, according to testimony Friday morning in Flint’s district court. They are charged with hiding unsafe lead levels. In April, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced felony charges against two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials and one City of Flint official. At that time, he promised more criminal charges would be forthcoming. Flint’s drinking water became contaminated in lead in April 2014 after the city, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched from treated water supplied from Detroit to raw water from the Flint River. Department of Environmental Quality officials have acknowledged a mistake in failing to require corrosion control chemicals to be added to the water. As a result, lead leached from pipes, joints and fixtures into Flint households and harmful lead levels spiked in Flint children.

Fears of Terrorism and Violence Growing in Rio Ahead of Olympics

It happens so frequently in Brazil, that it even has a name, a “lightning kidnapping.” That’s when a person is forced to withdraw money from cash machines by robbers, often at gunpoint, and that’s what New Zealand jiu-jitsu fighter, Jason Lee, claimed happened to him, reports Fox News. What made the athlete’s story more shocking, however was that the crime allegedly was committed by military policemen from Rio de Janeiro state, the very people who are supposed to protect people from such acts. Lee’s story is far from an isolated case. The incidence of violent crime in greater Rio de Janeiro increased in every category in May, the most recently-released data, from the year before. There were a record number of homicides and street theft grew about 43 percent. Despite urban violence being so prevalent in Rio, the country’s Minister of Defense, Raul Jungmann, identified terrorism as “the biggest challenge of the games.” In the last week a group of 12 people who pledged their allegiance to ISIS were arrested on suspicions of planning an attack on the Olympics, and a second possible ISIS cell was also identified.

Economic News

The US economy grew meekly for a third straight quarter in the April-June period, raising new concerns about the risk of recession, as the drag from falling business investment more than offset strong consumer spending. The nation’s gross domestic product — the value of goods and services produced in the nation — increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.2% in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Friday. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg had forecast growth of 2.6%. Growth from 2012 to 2015 was 2.2%. Of concern, however, is that the economy has expanded at about half that pace over the past 12 months. Consumer spending surged last quarter as expected, rising 4.2%. Consumers have been buoyed by solid job and income growth, still low gasoline prices and reduced household debt. But business investment declined for the third straight quarter, sliding 2.2%. Capital spending has been subdued because of the long-standing downturn in exports as well as the oil industry slump triggered by low crude prices.

Orders to U.S. factories for long-lasting manufactured goods fell in June by the largest amount in nearly two years, reflecting a big decline in the volatile category of commercial aircraft. Demand for durable goods dropped 4% in June, the biggest setback since an 18.4% drop in August 2014, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. June’s result was led by a 58.8% plunge in orders for commercial aircraft. Outside of transportation, orders were down 0.5%. The new report indicates manufacturing remains under stress from weak global demand and a strong dollar.

It’s taken 11 years, but home prices have finally climbed back to pre-crash levels. The median home price in the U.S. was $231,000 last month, according to a report from ATTOM Data Solutions (formerly RealtyTrac). That’s 9% higher than a year ago and 1% above the previous record of $228,000 hit in July 2005. Median home prices have been rising on a national level every month for more than four years, and it’s created an affordability issue in many housing markets. Wages have remained relatively stagnant since the financial crisis while lenders have become more stringent with their borrowing terms. Rents have also been on the rise, making it difficult for homebuyers to save for a down payment. Last month, sellers sold their homes for an average of $41,000 more than their purchase price.

The percentage of Americans that own a home has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.  During the second quarter of 2016, the non-seasonally adjusted homeownership rate fell to just 62.9 percent, which was exactly where it was at when the U.S. Census began publishing this measurement back in 1965. Rising home prices in an economy of stagnant wages (for the lower 80%) have pushed entry-level homes out of reach for many people. First time buyers are having trouble saving for a down payment due to soaring rents.

Islamic State

At least 44 people were killed and 140 injured Wednesday in an explosion in the northern Syrian town of Qamishli near the Turkish border. The bomb went off near Kurdish security headquarters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, a monitoring group based in Britain. The Islamic State extremist group, which has carried out previous bombings against Kurds in the area, has claimed responsibility, the BBC reports. Many of the wounded sustained severe injuries, raising the likelihood that the death toll will increase. A witness said the blast was so powerful it shattered windows in stores in Nusaybin, the Turkish town directly across the border, Reuters reports.

U.S.-led coalition targeting a village in northern Syria held by the Islamic State group killed 28 civilians, including seven children, Syrian activists said Friday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said aircraft belonging to the coalition struck the village of al-Ghandour late on Thursday. Observatory’s chief Rami Adurrahman said another 13 people were killed in the strikes but that he could not say if they were IS fighters or civilians. Al-Ghandour is 15 miles northwest of the town of Manbij, a key hub in the extremist group’s Syria network and a supply route to the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa. The bombings came a week after airstrikes, also blamed by Syrian activists on U.S. aircraft, killed at least 56 civilians in Islamic State-held territory in northern Syria.

Syria

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to elicit Russian military cooperation in the fight against Islamic State in Syria suffered two potentially crippling blows on Thursday. First, the Syrian army said it had cut off all supply routes into the eastern part of the city of Aleppo – Syria’s most important opposition stronghold – and President Bashar al-Assad’s government asked residents to leave the city. That move, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said on Thursday, appeared to be an effort to pre-empt a U.S. demand that Russia and Syria reopen a major road into the divided northern city before talks could begin on creating a joint intelligence center to coordinate air attacks against Islamic State.

Germany

Germans are on edge due to multiple terrorist attacks in just one week. An ax attack, a mass shooting, a machete assault and a suicide blast. Four attacks in one week, all in Germany’s Bavaria region. They appear to be unrelated for now. But three of the attackers were recently arrived refugees. One was a German-Iranian dual citizen. And all were young men between the ages of 18 and 27. Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Joachim Herrman, was visibly shaken early Tuesday morning, hours after a Syrian refugee blew himself with a backpack explosive. “I have been Interior Minister in Bavaria for nearly nine years,” he told the press. “And I have never experienced anything like this until now.” “Wilkommenskultur” — the buzzword that welcomed more than a million refugees into the country last year — has given way to an unsettling fear that the country is not prepared for the security and integration challenges of taking in a diverse, often traumatized population that comes with their emotional baggage and Islamic beliefs.

Afghanistan

Five U.S. Special Operations troops, fighting alongside their Afghan counterparts, were wounded recently while battling Islamic State militants in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province, the top U.S. general there said Thursday. Speaking to reporters from Kabul, U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. said that the troops had been wounded from small-arms fire and shrapnel in the past week. He did not specify when exactly the injuries occurred. The troops came under fire during what Nicholson called ‘clearing operations’ as U.S. and Afghan troops pushed into southern Nangahar following a series of airstrikes.”

Nigeria

The increasing massacre of Christians in Nigeria has led one leader to estimate that as many Christians have been killed in the country in the first half of 2016 as were killed in all of 2015. Much of Nigeria has become a war-torn place due to terrorist organization Boko Haram, as well as other perpetrators of violence such as Fulani herdsman who have been targeting Christians. The Christian Association of Nigerian-Americans (CANAN) has called on the Nigerian government to do something about the continual massacre of Nigerian Christians. “Whatever the federal government is doing, if anything, is either too slow or insignificant compared with the reoccurrence of the killings; the federal government needs to step up and take bold actions to give members of the Christian community in the country a sense of security and belonging,” said Pastor Ade Oyesile, executive director of CANAN.

Hundreds of thousands of children in Nigeria are suffering from starvation after Boko Haram militants ravaged the country. ChristianToday.com reports that the chaos in Nigeria created by Boko Haram terrorists has resulted in 20,000 murders and the displacement of nearly two million people. It has also led to severe starvation and malnutrition of many. Nearly a quarter of a million children in parts of Borneo State, where the conflict is the worst, are facing starvation. Millions of people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Wildfires

A wildfire burning south of Monterey, California, has grown to nearly 30,000 acres, and fire officials have estimated it will take until the end of August to completely extinguish the blaze, dubbed the Soberanes Fire. Eight hikers found themselves trapped inside a forest south of San Francisco for five days by the Soberanes fire, which has been blazing since last Friday. Instead of becoming victims of the wildfire, the men were rescued Tuesday after Cal Fire and Monterey County Sheriff’s deputies carried out a daring search and rescue mission. The unidentified men were unharmed, although they spent much of their time in the forest without food and water. Meanwhile, north of Los Angeles, firefighters are making headway on a second massive fire. The Sand Fire has consumed more than 38,000 acres, but as of Friday morning was 65 percent contained.

Weather

A return of monsoonal moisture across much of the Southwest U.S, triggered thunderstorms that produced damaging winds, dust storms, heavy rain and hail late on Friday as the region braces for more of the same going into next week. APS said that roughly 26,000 lost power on Friday night as a result of strong thunderstorms wind gusts, with Buckeye and West Valley seeing the highest impact totals. The City of Phoenix on Friday advised residents against using certain roads, and reported that street crews were working to clear downed trees from roadways. 70-mph winds were reported at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. No injuries have been confirmed as a result of the fierce winds. Dust storm warnings were also issued for large parts of Arizona in the early morning hours on Saturday.

Flash flooding occurred in parts of the Ohio Valley on Thursday, and the risk for heavy rain and flash flooding now spreads eastward into southeast new England as series of disturbances push through the region. More rain will move into these regions this weekend. Early Thursday morning, over 3 inches of rain in 2 hours swamped parts of the Cincinnati metro area, stranding numerous vehicles in Anderson Township. In Bellevue, Kentucky, more than 20 homes were flooded with water up to 6 feet deep. On Thursday evening, roughly 2 inches of rain fell in about an hour in Manhattan, Kansas, causing flash flooding on area roadways. The National Weather Service has placed parts of Massachusetts under a flash flood watch.

Large hail driven by strong winds damaged virtually every home in the Wyoming town of Pine Bluffs Wednesday evening, prompting help from the Wyoming National Guard. Around 500 homes were damaged in Pine Bluffs, about 40 miles east of Cheyenne near the Nebraska state line. Thursday, Governor Matt Mead ordered 27 members of the Wyoming National Guard to assist with cleanup in the town of about 1,200 residents. This included clearing of trees and boarding shattered windows. The hailstorm was from one of a pair of supercell thunderstorms that pelted parts of southeast Wyoming, western Nebraska and northeast Colorado with wind-driven, large hail that damaged numerous homes, businesses and vehicles Wednesday.

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