Signs of the Times (12/17/16)

Churches Win vs. LGBT in Liberal Massachusetts

The state of Massachusetts has responded to a lawsuit by recognizing that churches are free to operate based on the tenets of their faith. The Bay State caught the attention of churches in July after the commonwealth passed an anti-discrimination law. Part of that law is “public accommodation” for homosexuals, lesbians, and the transgendered, and a state commission announced rules in September stating that churches, too, must abide by the same requirements. In October, Massachusetts churches sued for the right to not be forced to abide by the liberal state’s pro-LGBT policies. The state Human Rights Commission realized that it had no legal grounds to fight the lawsuit and win, and so it backed down, said Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christiana Holcomb. In filings with the court, the state acknowledged that churches are permitted to exercise religious freedom without interference from the state.

Texas Judge Orders ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Display Restored

A Texas judge has ordered a school district to restore a decoration that included a biblical verse recited by Linus in the 1960s TV special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Officials in the Killeen school district north of Austin ordered a nurse’s aide, Dedra Shannon, to remove a handmade decoration featuring a Bible verse from the special, fearing it violated prohibitions on religion in classrooms. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to get it restored, arguing the state’s 2013 so-called Merry Christmas law means schools can’t “silence a biblical reference to Christmas.” Paxton welcomed the decision from Judge Jack Jones saying “religious discrimination towards Christians has become a holiday tradition of sorts among certain groups. I am glad to see that the court broke through the left’s rhetorical fog and recognized that a commitment to diversity means protecting everyone’s individual religious expression.” Judge Jones ruled Thursday the display should be put back up with an added line calling it “Ms. Shannon’s Christmas message.”

Obama Refuses to Sign Iran Sanctions Renewal

In an unexpected reversal, President Barack Obama declined to sign a renewal of sanctions against Iran but let it become law anyway. Although the White House had said that Obama was expected to sign the 10-year-renewal, the midnight deadline came and went Thursday with no approval from the president. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama had decided to let it become law without his signature. It marked a symbolic attempt to demonstrate disapproval for lawmakers’ actions. Under the Constitution, the president has 10 days after Congress passes a bill to sign it, veto it or let it become law with no signature if Congress is still in session. Iran’s president had vowed to respond if the sanctions were renewed, arguing they violate the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which eased sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration stressed that Iran would be unaffected by the renewal, as long as it continues honoring the nuclear deal.

Obama Approves Rule Prohibiting States from Defunding Planned Parenthood

President Barack Obama has finalized a new rule that would essentially prohibit states from defunding the Planned Parenthood abortion business. The finalized rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prevents states from blocking Title X funding (federal dollars for family planning services) to abortion companies like Planned Parenthood. The rule undermines state laws, stipulating that it “precludes project recipients [states] from using criteria in their selection of sub-recipients that are unrelated to the ability to deliver services to program beneficiaries in an effective manner.” Responding to the rule, pro-life Rep. Diane Black told LifeNews.com, “President Obama knows that hope is rising for the innocent victims of Planned Parenthood’s brutality and the big abortion industry’s days of taxpayer-funded windfalls are numbered. We should not be surprised that his administration would lash out with this eleventh-hour power grab on the way out the door, but I am certain this rule will not stand for long.”

Wikileaks Founder Assange Denies Getting Hacked Info from Russia

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denied Thursday that hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta were stolen and passed to his organization by Russian state actors. “Our source is not the Russian government,” Assange said on the The Sean Hannity Show. Assange’s assertion contradicts the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which concluded in October that “the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” In addition to the hacked emails from the DNC and Podesta, Assange admitted that Wikileaks received “received about three pages of information to do with the [Republican National Committee] and Trump [during the campaign], but it was already public somewhere else.” However, FBI Director James B. Comey and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. are now in agreement with a CIA assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in part to help Donald Trump win the White House, officials disclosed Friday.

Obama Vows Retaliation, Russia Demands Proof

As the Obama administration stepped up its rhetoric against Russia for allegedly hacking its way into American politics, Russian officials demanded President Barack Obama either “stop talking” or “produce some proof.” Obama said Thursday that the United States will retaliate against Russia for interfering in the election by hacking political organizations. On Friday, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the Obama administration has yet to back up its accusations with any evidence.

Appeals Court Upholds 10-Day Waiting Period for Gun Buys

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld a California law requiring a 10-day waiting period for gun purchases, the Washington Examiner reported. The decision reverses a lower court’s verdict that the waiting period was unconstitutional. “Applying intermediate scrutiny analysis, we hold that the law does not violate the Second Amendment rights of these plaintiffs, because the 10-day wait is a reasonable precaution for the purchase of a second or third weapon, as well as for a first purchase,” wrote Judge Mary Schroeder.

Juveniles Face Life in Prison for Gatlinburg Fires

The toll of the wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in recent weeks is staggering: 14 people dead, another 175 injured, and more than 2,400 houses, businesses and other structures destroyed. As the full extent of the catastrophic damage reveals itself, authorities — who early on suspected arson – now say the blaze was definitely man-made. Or, more aptly, juvenile-made. Two Tennessee youths are sitting in a Sevier County detention center, charged with starting the fire. If convicted of aggravated arson, they could go to prison for 60 years. If more serious charges, including first-degree murder, are levied against them and they are convicted, they could spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Yahoo Says Data Stolen from 1 Billion Accounts

Yahoo disclosed a new security breach on Wednesday that may have affected more than one billion accounts. The breach dates back to 2013. Yahoo now believes an “unauthorized third party” stole user data from more than one billion accounts in August 2013. That data may have included names, email addresses and passwords, but not financial information. The company will notify users who may be affected and has begun requiring users to change their passwords. The security incident, likely one of the largest cybersecurity breaches ever, comes after Yahoo admitted that data from at least 500 million accounts had been stolen this past September. “Yahoo has now won the gold medal and the silver medal for the worst hacks in history,” said Hemu Nigam, CEO of online security consultancy SSP Blue.

Patients Now Asked to Pay Up Front for Services

Approximately three-quarters of health care and hospital systems now ask for payment at the time services are provided, a practice known as “point-of-service collections,” estimated Richard Gundling, a senior vice president at the Healthcare Financial Management Association, an industry group. He could not say how many were doing so for more highly priced services or for patients with high-deductible plans — situations that would likely result in out-of-pocket outlays of hundreds or thousands of dollars. But there’s a big difference between handing over a credit card to cover a $20 co-payment versus suddenly being confronted with a $2,000 charge to cover a deductible, an amount that might take months to pay off or exceed a patient’s credit limit. Doctors may refuse to dispense needed care before the payment is made, even as a patient’s health hangs in the balance. The primary reason? While more than two-thirds of patients with a deductible of less than $1,000 were likely to pay at least some portion of what they owe, just 36% of those with deductibles of more than $5,000 did so, a recent analysis found.

Uber Ordered to Shutdown Self-Driving Cars in San Francisco

California regulators are trying to put the brakes on Uber’s self-driving efforts after the company failed to obtain proper permits before testing its cars on San Francisco streets. Uber had announced on Wednesday that two dozen self-driving Volvo SUVs would begin to drive passengers around the city. In response, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Uber in a letter that it must cease self-driving operations on public roads and begin the process to obtain proper permits, or it will be forced to take legal action against the company. Uber’s San Francisco launch has already proven messy. Video footage shows an autonomous Uber running a red light on its first day of operations. The company blamed it on “human error.”

Economic News – Domestic

The Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate on Wednesday for the first time in a year and signaled that rates could continue to rise next year more quickly than officials had expected. The increase was unanimous and modest, raising the Fed’s key interest rate by a quarter point, from a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent to a range of 0.5 to 0.75 percent. It reflects Fed officials’ confidence in the strengthening of the U.S. economy and what officials see as budding signs of higher inflation. Fed officials do not appear to be anticipating a massive growth boost next year from economic policies implemented by President-elect Donald Trump, but they appear set to raise rates faster if those policies were to cause an overheating in the economy, reports the Washington Post.

Repealing Obamacare would be a big tax boon for wealthy Americans. That’s because it would eliminate two surcharges on the rich that are being levied to help pay for Obamacare provisions, such as the federal subsidies for low- and moderate-income enrollees. Since 2013, single taxpayers with incomes above $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000 annually have had to pay an additional 0.9% Medicare payroll tax on the amount they earn above these thresholds. Ending Obamacare would mean that nearly everyone in the Top 1%, who earn more than $774,000 a year, would enjoy a hefty tax cut, averaging $33,000, according to a new report by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center. Those in the Top 0.1% would get an average tax cut of about $197,000.

Economic News – International

The U.S. dollar has been powering higher since Donald Trump won the presidential election and the euro has been weakening, putting the two currencies on a collision course. The dollar’s 9% move since Election Day means it’s now worth €0.96. That’s its highest level since 2003. The major shift in these currencies is making European products and travel cheaper for Americans. European exporters, including German auto manufacturers, are expected to benefit. Germany ships over $125 billion worth of goods to the U.S. annually, making it one of America’s biggest trading partners.

China has lost its crown as the United States’ biggest overseas creditor. That title now belongs to Japan. China has been dumping U.S. government debt to prop up its currency. China uses the dollars it gets from selling U.S. Treasuries to buy the yuan, which has sunk to an 8-year low as the world’s second largest economy slows. China’s huge holdings of U.S. debt fell to $1.12 trillion at the end of October, their lowest level in more than six years, according to U.S. Treasury Department data. Japan held $1.13 trillion. Both countries offloaded Treasuries during the month, but China dumped far more: its holdings dropped by $41.3 billion, while Japan’s fell by just $4.5 billion.

Fierce protests erupted in 15 Brazilian cities Tuesday as the country’s Senate approved a controversial 20-year austerity plan. Known as PEC 55, the constitutional amendment imposes a cap on public spending that will limit federal investment in social programs for the next 20 years. Brazil’s Senate approved the spending bill 53 to 16, and it became law Thursday. The government hopes that the spending cap, combined with a proposed pension reform, will lure investors back to Brazil, bringing an end to the worst recession in decades. “It will hit the poorest and most vulnerable Brazilians the hardest, will increase inequality levels in an already very unequal society, and definitively signals that social rights are a very low priority for Brazil for the next 20 years,” said Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Persecution Watch

Fifty statues of Christ and other Christian figures have been defaced and smashed apart in a crime wave sweeping parts of Germany. Statues in the Münster region in the west of Germany have been targeted over a series of months – including one of Jesus which had its head lopped off, and many more missing limbs or other fragments. Police in the area say they suspect a “religious background” to the crimes, but have yet to name any suspects. Police were investigating six men with alleged links to Islamic extremists, but gave up after three left for Syria, one died and the other two dropped off the radar.

Syria

The evacuation of thousands of refugees out of the besieged city of Aleppo has been halted and the status of the operation thrown into doubt, the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed Friday. “The evacuation was suspended by the regime and the Syrian regime now is shooting at the entrance point using heavy machine guns,” Middle East spokesman for the ICRC, Ralph El Hage said. Evacuations had begun for hundreds of civilians on Thursday, but for many, fleeing their homes meant leaving one warzone for another. Most of the civilians who escaped will be taken to rebel-controlled area in the neighboring province of Idlib, one of the few remaining footholds rebel groups still have in the country — and most likely the regime’s next target for recapture. While the world’s attention has been focused on Aleppo, Idlib has been pounded with airstrikes from President Assad’s regime forces, with dozens of deaths reported in recent weeks.

Iraq

ISIS killed and tortured Iraqis who did not subscribe to their extreme brand of Islam. Thousands of others fled their homes to escape the militant group’s brutality. Now, some of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities teeter on extinction. Hopes for a better future blossomed as Iraqi forces launched an offensive October 17 to oust ISIS from Nineveh province and Mosul. But now, what few minorities remain, wonder whether Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government, accused by many of stoking religious and ethnic differences, will lead the way forward to peace? Or will Iraq erupt in an outright civil war leading, to a splintered nation? As the war to oust ISIS unfolds on the streets of Mosul, Iraq’s immediate future hangs in the balance.

Turkey

A car bomb exploded near a public bus in Turkey on Saturday, killing 13 soldiers and wounding 55 people, according to Turkish officials. Of the injured, six people are in critical condition. A vehicle rigged with a bomb exploded next to the bus — which was transporting off-duty soldiers. The attack came exactly a week after a pair of bombings in Istanbul killed 44 people, including 37 police officers, and injured 155 others. A Kurdish militant group called the Kurdish Freedom Hawks claimed responsibility for last week’s bombings.

China

China “unlawfully seized” an underwater research drone after a Chinese warship took the device from waters near a U.S. oceanographic vessel. In the latest encounter in international waters in the South China Sea region, the USNS Bowditch was sailing about 100 miles off the Philippine port at Subic Bay when the incident occurred. Bowditch had stopped in the water to pick up two underwater drones. At that point a Chinese naval ship that had been shadowing the Bowditch put a small boat into the water. That small boat came up alongside and the Chinese crew took one of the drones. U.S. oceanographic research vessels are often followed in the water under the assumption they are spying. In this case, however, the drone was simply measuring ocean conditions, the official said. The Pentagon on Saturday said that Beijing had agreed to return the drone.

Earthquakes

Dangerous waves could be headed to some South Pacific coasts after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck in the sea off Papua New Guinea on Saturday night, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said in a preliminary alert. The quake struck in the ocean about 45 kilometers east of Papua New Guinea’s New Ireland island, also known as Latangai, at about 8:51 p.m. (5:51 a.m. ET), the US Geological Survey said. Papua New Guinea is along the “Ring of Fire,” a zone of seismic activity and volcanoes around the edges of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a vast area where about 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur, according to the USGS.

Weather

Heavy lake-effect snow pummeled several cities across several states Wednesday, including Cleveland and Buffalo, overwhelming drivers as visibilities were reduced to nearly zero. The lake-effect snow is hitting one week after up to 3 feet of snow buried some of the same Great Lakes snowbelts from central New York to Upper Michigan last week. Bone-chilling winds will persist Friday across the United States as temperatures continue to plunge into a sub-freezing stretch of some of the coldest air this season. The brutal blast of frigid air sweeping across the United States wreaked havoc on roads in Virginia and Maryland, leaving at least three dead in multi-vehicle wrecks Saturday. A 55-vehicle crash on a icy stretch of I-95 in Baltimore left at least two people dead and motorists stranded for hours about 5 a.m. Saturday. In northern Virginia, authorities responded to more than 40 traffic accidents. Nearly 50% of the country will see temperatures dip below freezing Saturday and Sunday. Wind chill temperatures could reach 35 below zero in the Midwest and Northeast on Saturday.

Flash flooding was reported in more than a dozen California towns, while mudslides were reported in at least five others. Near Gasquet, a large boulder crashed down onto Highway 199. Due to rockslides, a 36-mile stretch of Highway 1 on California’s Central Coast remained closed until 2 p.m. Friday as officials worked to clear debris. Wet weather also created dangerous conditions in parts of Southern California. A mudslide impacted 18 homes in the town of Duarte, located east of Los Angeles. Firefighters had to rescue two people from vehicles caught in the mudslide.

The Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world — triggering a “massive decline in sea ice and snow,” according to a new federal report. On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 11th annual Arctic Report Card, which compiles data from 61 scientists in 11 countries. The study shows that the increase in average air temperature between October 2015 and September 2016 was the largest since 1995 at 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit (3.5 degrees Celsius) above those recorded in 1900 — the highest average on record.

There’s a new record for the largest wave ever measured by a buoy, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Scientists say a 62.3-foot wave was observed in the North Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 4, 2013 when a strong cold front produced 50 mph winds, churning up the sea, NBC News reported. Somewhere between Iceland and the United Kingdom, a buoy measured the huge wave. A wave in the North Atlantic in 2002 measured 95 feet in height, as spotted from a ship, according to BBC.com. Hawaiian Garret McNamara holds the record for largest wave ever surfed, a 78-footer in Portugal in 2011, CNN.com said.

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