Signs of the Times (6/28/17)

Supreme Court Partially Upholds Trump Travel Ban

The Supreme Court delivered a mixed ruling on Monday that will allow President Trump to implement his travel ban against six Muslim majority nations — but only for visitors lacking ties to the United States. They ruled that a complete ban went too far, and it only blocked the part affecting those with “standing” to challenge Trump’s executive order in U.S. courts. The court ruled that Trump may bar people from six majority Muslim countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — as long as they have no “bona fide” relationship to the U.S. Those that have established ties will be allowed to continue entering the country, which covers the majority of visitors from those countries. More than 100,000 people legally entered the U.S. from the six countries in fiscal 2016, which ended last Sept. 30, according to State Department data. Nearly 30,000 had immigrant visas, more than 25,000 arrived as refugees and thousands more came on student, diplomatic and research visas that require proof of a U.S. connection. All would be exempt from the ban under the court’s decision. The ruling means officials at the Department of Homeland Security and State will have to begin sorting through each application submitted by travelers from the six targeted countries to determine if they have enough of a link to the U.S. to enter.

Supreme Court Reopens Same-Sex Marriage Issues

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to reopen the national debate over same-sex marriage. The court will hear a challenge from a Colorado baker who had lost lower court battles over his refusal to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. Like a New Mexico photographer three years ago, the baker cited his religious beliefs. The justices — who upheld same-sex marriage nationwide in a landmark 2015 ruling — apparently decided that despite state laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, the merchants’ obligation to same-sex couples might be limited by religious freedom. A Kentucky appeals court recently upheld a printer’s right to refuse to print shirts promoting a gay pride festival, reasoning that his actions did not discriminate against any individuals because of their sexual orientation. Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, previously has lost in lower courts his claim that the First Amendment protects his freedom of expression.

Supreme Court Rules for Missouri Church in Religious Discrimination Case

The Supreme Court has ruled for a Missouri church that claimed religious discrimination after it was refused state funds to improve its playground. The case pitted Trinity Lutheran Church against Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, which offered grants to help nonprofits pay for the resurfacing of playgrounds with recycled tires. Ruling 7-2, the court Monday determined that the state had unfairly treated Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The state wrongly denied the church “an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “This Court has repeatedly confirmed that denying a generally available benefit solely on account of religious identity imposes a penalty on the free exercise of religion,” he argued.

Senate Cancels Vote on New Health Care Bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pulled the plug Tuesday on his Obamacare repeal bill, saying Republicans would resume talks to see whether they can get a bill they’ll agree upon. The bill is not dead, but it is on life support. Opposition to the bill from even GOP Senators intensified Monday after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that twenty-two million fewer people would have health care coverage by 2026 under this bill. However, the report said the legislation would cut deficits over the next decade by $321 billion. The Senate bill would have made sweeping cuts to Medicaid, gotten rid of the individual mandate, and eliminated Obamacare’s taxes on the wealthy and insurers. It would have also prevented federal funds from reimbursing Planned Parenthood for any health services it provides. The next step for McConnell and other Republican leaders is to get everybody in a room and figure out what it would take to get various factions on board, which could prove to be virtually impossible.

Number of Refugees Entering U.S. Down 50% Under Trump

The number of refugees who entered the U.S. during President Trump’s first three months compared to the last months of President Obama’s term was cut nearly in half, according to statistics released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security. According to the statistics, a total of 13,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in the past three months, compared to 25,000 under Obama, The Los Angeles Times reported. The most popular countries of origins remained the same: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Myanmar. Obama set the ceiling of 110,000 refugee arrivals across the U.S. President Trump cut that number to 50,000 this year. Congress has approved a budget for only 75,000 for this fiscal year. A U.S. State Department spokesman said the country is now resettling 900 refugee arrivals weekly, to remain within that budget.

Federal Government Owns 47% of All Western U.S. Land

The federal government owns 28 percent of all land in the United States?  These holdings include national parks, national forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, vast tracts of range and wasteland managed by the Bureau of Land Management, reservations held in trust for Native American tribes, military bases, and ordinary federal buildings and installations. In the 11 western states, the federal government collectively owns 47 percent of all land.  East of the Mississippi River, the feds only own 4 percent of all land.  In Connecticut and Iowa, the federal government only owns 0.3 percent of all land.  Critics point to this disparity in arguing that the federal government should cede control of western lands to the states. They also point out that thanks to mismanagement by the feds, wildfires tend to spread very rapidly in many areas owned and controlled by the federal government. Nevada has the highest proportion of federal land ownership at 85%, followed by Utah at 65% and Idaho at 61%.

CNN Producer Caught Admitting Russian Probe is Fake News

Project Veritas has released a video of CNN Producer John Bonifield who was caught on hidden-camera admitting that there is no proof to CNN’s Russia narrative. He confirmed that the driving factor at CNN is a push for ratings. Ethics no longer apply.” All the nice cutesy little ethics that used to get talked about in journalism school you’re just like, that’s adorable. That’s adorable. This is a business.” This comes on the heels of three reporters being forced out of CNN for publishing a false story that attempted to link a Russian investment fund with Trump. The article was removed from CNN.com on Friday after the network decided it could no longer stand by its reporting. President Trump has taken a lot of heat for referring to CNN as “fake news”, but after the events of the past several days he has been vindicated.

Border Patrol Rescuing Immigrants from Southwest Heat Wave

The Border Patrol is shifting agents with medical and rescue training to southern Arizona’s west desert in response to a record-breaking heat wave. The daytime temperatures, which have soared above 115 degrees, have already triggered a spike in rescues and might have claimed the life of at least one migrant this week. Volunteers from the group No More Deaths planned to search near Organ Pipe National Monument this weekend for at least one dead migrant who was reportedly seen in the area earlier this week. Two migrant groups passing through the area each reported seeing a dead body. The humanitarian group places water jugs in the desert to help prevent migrant deaths.

Three Men ‘Marry’ in Columbia

Colombia legalized same-sex marriage in 2016 and polyamorous marriage this year. Now, three men got legally married, reports Charisma News. Michael Brown, host of the Line of Fire radio program, noted that society can no longer deny that there is slippery slope when it comes to sex and the changing ideas about biblical standards for marriage. In a column for Charisma, he warned that an example of that “slippery slope” here in the United States would be if a lesbian couple with a child has the help of another man, “all three of whom become parents,” the Associated Press said. He also wrote that in New York you can now be fined for not accepting the stated identity of a transgendered employee. That slippery slope has now gone to Canada, where a bill allows its citizens to use whatever pronouns they want to refer to them.

  • As foundational precepts are torn down, chaos and anarchy are certain to follow

Another Worldwide Ransomware Attack

A virulent new strain of ransomware named Petya wreaked havoc on some of the most-established companies in Europe and North America on Tuesday, capitalizing on the same vulnerabilities that froze hundreds of thousands of computers a month ago. Computer-security company Kaspersky Lab said about 2,000 systems worldwide were affected. Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk, the world’s largest overseas cargo carrier, and Russian oil behemoth Rosneft were among the high-profile corporate victims in at least six countries. Merck, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, and British media company WPP tweeted they had also been hit by Petya. By late Tuesday, the cyberattack had spread to North American divisions of European companies

111 Terminally Ill People End Their Lives under California’s New Right-to-Die Law

California health officials said 111 terminally ill people have legally ended their lives since a right-to-die law took effect in 2016, according to a report released Tuesday. The report found that of the those who died using prescription drugs, 58.6% had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, while neuromuscular disorders like ALS and Parkinsons’s accounted for 18% of the group. A little over 75% of the 111 people, were 60-89 years of age, and 89.5% were white. The majority of the people involved has at least some college education. California is not the first state to enact such a law. Oregon, became the first to adopt similar legislation in 1997, and U.S. doctor-assisted deaths are legal in Colorado, Montana, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C., according to the Associated Press.

Citing LGBT Discrimination, California Bans Travel to 3 States

California’s attorney general blocked state-funded travel to four additional states on Thursday in response to what he considers anti-LGBT rights laws enacted this year. California’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra added Texas, Alabama, South Dakota and Kentucky to the list of places where state employee travel is restricted. Lawmakers passed legislation last year banning non-essential travel to states with laws that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. North Carolina, Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee are already on the list. Louisville has been widely accepted as an LGBT-friendly city. In 2015, Louisville ranked 11th in the country for gay residents, and the University of Louisville was named one of the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the South by Campus Pride Index. But a recently passed bill, SB-17, could have indirect repercussions on the LGBT community, Becerra concluded. SB-17 affirms students’ constitutional right to express religious and political views in public schools.

Seattle’s Minimum Wage Hike Hurting Low-Level Workers

Seattle’s first-in-the-nation $15 per hour minimum wage law is hurting the workers it aimed to help, a new study has found. The working poor are making more per hour but taking home less pay. The University of Washington paper asserts the new wages boosted worker pay by 3 percent, but also resulted in a 9-percent reduction in hours and a $125 cut to the monthly paychecks. The law also cost the city 5,000 jobs, the report said. Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance, passed by the Seattle City Council and signed by Mayor Ed Murray in 2014, was sold as a way to close the income inequality gap and help those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder. More than a dozen cities and counties, mostly in California and New York, followed suit.

Economic News

The Federal Reserve on Thursday released initial results of its yearly stress tests to determine whether the nation’s biggest banks are financially strong enough to weather a severe recession. They indicate that Wall Street banks are very healthy and have enough reserves to shield Americans from another financial crisis. All 34 financial institutions would be able to continue to lend to even under grim economic conditions. This is the seventh year in a row the Fed has run stress tests, which were put in place after the last financial crisis.

The recent drop in the cost of oil has been a happy surprise for drivers, who are enjoying the cheapest gas prices at the start of summer in 12 years. Oil prices have fallen to a glut of supply and gasoline prices have followed suit, falling every day since June 2, according to AAA. The average price nationally for a gallon of regular was $2.28 Thursday, down 10 cents since the start of the month. Wholesale gas prices suggest that prices drivers pay will keep falling.

The European Union’s competition watchdog slapped Google with a record-breaking $2.72 billion fine on Tuesday for breaching antitrust rules with its online shopping service. The announcement marks the latest clash between European regulators and large U.S. technology companies like Google, Apple and Amazon that have been ensnared in lengthy antitrust, tax and privacy-related investigations by European officials. Regulators said Google “abused its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to another Google product, its comparison shopping service.” Google has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Kent Walker, a senior vice president for the firm, said it would review the Commission’s findings, and may appeal.

Israel

Israel launched strikes on Syrian military positions Saturday, close to the two countries’ disputed border in the Golan Heights, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The action was a response to what the IDF said were more than 10 projectiles fired into Israel from inside Syria. The IDF described the projectile fire as “errant,” blaming it on internal fighting. Israeli aircraft targeted three positions from which the projectiles were fired, the IDF said. The strikes included hits on two tanks belonging to the Syrian regime. Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported several people were killed in the Israeli strikes. SANA said fighting in the area is between the Syrian regime and the al Nusra Front, a militant Syrian rebel group.

United Kingdom

Hackers hit the email system of the British Parliament in an apparent attempt to break into the accounts of hundreds of MPs, Lords and their staffs, according to a House of Commons spokesperson. The attack prompted security services to shut down access to anyone outside the Palace of Westminster, where the two houses of Parliament meet. Parliament was working with the National Cyber Security Centre to secure the computer network investigate the incident. Members of the House of Commons and Lords were informed of the cyberattack Friday night and said they were unable to gain access to their emails on Saturday. “Closer investigation by our team confirmed that hackers were carrying out a sustained and determined attack on all parliamentary user accounts in attempt to identify weak passwords,” a security statement said.

Venezuela

As political unrest in Venezuela erupts for the third consecutive month, thousands of people need medical aid but face difficulties obtaining basic supplies due to severe shortages. The country has been suffering an 85% shortage of medicine and a 90% deficit of other medical supplies used to treat severe conditions like cancer and hemophilia, according to the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela — leaving a nation of 31 million without proper medical care. Although Venezuela has faced food and medicine shortages in the past, the situation has become heightened over the past four years under President Nicolás Maduro. Anti-government protests that began in April have resulted in at least 70 deaths and more than 4,000 arrests, according to local human rights groups. A police helicopter dropped grenades on Venezuela’s Supreme Court and Interior Ministry Tuesday in what President Nicolas Maduro said was a thwarted “terrorist attack” aimed at ousting him from power.

China

A new US State Department report lists China as among the worst offenders for human trafficking, joining countries including Russia, Syria and Iran on the lowest rung of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. China, the report said, “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so; therefore, China was downgraded to Tier 3” — the lowest level. China was granted a waiver last year. This year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had the power to grant another one but has opted not to.

Around 10 people are dead and 140 people are missing, buried by a landslide that unleashed huge rocks and a mass of earth that crashed into homes in southwestern China early Saturday. The landslide from a mountain engulfed a cluster of more than 40 homes and a hotel in the village of Xinmo at about 6 a.m.. The landslide also blocked a 1.24 mile-section of a river. Wang Yongbo. An estimated 105 million cubic feet of earth and rock — equivalent to more than 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools —slid down the mountain. A second landslide struck the village in southwest China on Monday, where rescue workers have been looking for people buried over the weekend by the massive wave of rocks and debris. Before rescue work stopped Monday, only three people had been rescued and 10 bodies had been recovered.

Earthquakes

A magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit off Guatemala’s Pacific coast on Thursday, shaking much of the country and neighboring El Salvador. The Geological Survey said the 6:31 a.m. quake was centered about 24 miles southwest of Puerto San Jose and 6 miles below the surface. The quake sent people fleeing into the streets in El Salvador. Social media photos showed structural damage to buildings in Antigua, Guatemala, but no deaths or injuries have been reported.

Wildfires

Officials ordered all 1,400 residents in the central Arizona town of Mayer to evacuate Tuesday afternoon as a large wildfire continued to advance on the area. The Goodwin fire has burned around 18,000 acres of land in Prescott National Forest. Winds made conditions more dangerous for some 500 firefighters assigned to the inferno, and the blaze was just 5 percent contained on Tuesday afternoon. As a result, authorities requested a full evacuation of Mayer in addition to a few other areas nearby and closed Highway 69 in the vicinity. Nine structures have burned as of Wednesday morning. No fatalities or injuries have been reported.

Wildfires are blazing across the Southwest as the chance of rain remains low amid a deadly heatwave. Eighteen large fires (over 100 acres) are burning in the region, including six in Arizona, three in Utah, three in California, three in New Mexico, two in Nevada and a large one in Oregon. The two biggest wildfires are in southern Arizona and Utah. Wildfires already have caused far more destruction than usual in the first half of 2017, meteorologist Haley Brink of the CNN Weather Center said. Almost 1 million more acres than average have already burned. South of Tucson, blazing temperatures helped fuel a wildfire that destroyed four homes and eight structures overall. More than 100 homes in total were threatened by the inferno that started last Tuesday. Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency on Friday in response to the growing number of wildfires in Arizona and directed additional resources be made available for fire-suppression efforts. Firefighters continued to battle the Frye Fire in southeast Arizona, which has burned more than 38,000 acres and is 43% contained as of Tuesday morning. The Goodwin fire burning eight miles southwest of Mayer, Arizona, has consumed about 1,500 acres and destroyed nine structures. Numerous residences are threatened. Evacuations, road and area closures are in effect. It is only 5% contained.

The Brian Head fire in Utah has burned more than 67 square miles – about three times the size of Manhattan and now the largest active wildfire in the United States – and officials warned strong winds and low humidity could push the inferno north after favorable conditions kept it from growing out of control over the weekend. Authorities ordered more evacuations near the site of a wildfire that has forced more than 1,500 people from their homes and cabins in southern Utah. The blaze sparked June 17 by someone using a torch tool to burn weeds has exceeded $7 million in firefighting costs, state emergency managers said. The fire in the near the ski town of Brian Head, generally known for weekend getaway homes for Las Vegas residents, is about 10 percent contained.

Weather

As many as 12 deaths in metro Phoenix last week may have been caused by an extreme heat wave that sent temperatures soaring as high as 119 degrees. In one week, Phoenix had five days with temperatures hotter than 115 degrees, tying the city’s record of days above 115 set 22 years ago. Other Arizona counties have reported at least four heat-related deaths since last week, including an elderly couple found dead in a home in Pinal County with a broken air-conditioning unit. Maricopa County, the state’s largest municipality, saw 130 heat deaths last year, up from 85 in 2015. The county is currently investigating a total of 27 deaths as heat-related.

At least 90 homes remained under mandatory evacuation Sunday after levees breached along the Kings River in Central California on Friday and Saturday. “A prolonged period of warmer-than-average temperatures during the past week has led to significant melting of snowpack in the Sierra. That, in turn, has led to high flows and rises on rivers and streams in the region,” authorities said. Deputies went door to door asking residents to leave after a 15-foot-wide breach opened along the river Friday. The Fresno Bee says 300 people had to evacuate and that floodwaters have damaged seven structures and 18 RVs in the area east of Kingsburg.

Remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy brought heavy rain and localized flooding to the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys Friday, a day after the storm made landfall in Louisiana. On Thursday, an EF2 tornado struck just west of Birmingham, Alabama, where it destroyed several structures in the town of Fairfield. At least four people were injured in the town of 10,000 located about 10 miles southwest of Birmingham. The mayor of Lafitte, Louisiana, urged residents to evacuate Thursday afternoon as he feared rising floodwaters could inundate homes and trap people. Remnants of Cindy brought heavy rain and flooding as far north as Michigan Friday. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley declared a state of disaster in Isabella and Midland counties in central Michigan Friday after heavy rains led to what he called “extraordinary flooding and resulting damage.” At least two people were killed as a powerful line of thunderstorms moved through Arkansas overnight Saturday.

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