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Subzero Weather Kills 89 In Eastern Europe →

February 01, 2012

Record-low temperatures in parts of Eastern Europe pushed the death toll from Arctic conditions to at least 89 people on Wednesday. In Ukraine, 43 people have died in the past five days. Overnight temperatures sank as low as -27F and hundreds of heated tents have been put up to shelter the homeless. European weather alert network Meteoalarm warned of "extremely dangerous" conditions in several parts of eastern Europe, including Serbia, where a fourth person was found dead overnight in the southwestern Suvobor mountains. Thermometers in parts of Bulgaria plunged to record lows freezing ATM cash machines in Sofia, the daily newspaper Trud reported. Eight people in Bulgaria and 14 in neighboring Romania have now died in the cold snap. Meanwhile in Slovenia, winds of up to 180 kph (112 mph) blew off roofs and prompted authorities to close some schools, authorities said.
- Arab News

Komen for the Cure Defunds Planned Parenthood →

February 01, 2012

The breast cancer awareness organization Susan Komen for the Cure is defending its decision to revoke funding for the Planned Parenthood. The key in the Komen decision is the grant criteria it uses to make grants. Planned Parenthood does not perform mammograms at any of its centers across the United States, and Komen says it is implementing "more stringent eligibility standards to safeguard donor dollars." Its new guidelines also prevent it from funding any group under congressional investigation, but the breast screening issue reportedly has the effect of ending Planned Parenthood's funding even if the current Congressional probe finds Planned Parenthood free of any wrongdoing.
- Life News

Egyptian Soccer Fans Slaughter Each Other - Military and Police Blamed →

November 30, -1

Horrified eyewitnesses described how Egyptian police officers stood by as violent clashes between rival fans at a soccer match in northeastern Egypt left scores dead. When the referee blew the final whistle, thousands of Al-Masry home team fans stormed the pitch despite their team's hard-fought 3-1 victory. Amr Khamis, an Ahly supporter told CNN at the train station in Cairo after returning from the match, "Officers refused to open the gates of the stadium so we could not escape and had to face thousands of Al-Masry hooligans attacking with rocks, knives, swords and anything else you can imagine." Egypt has recently experienced a breakdown in security, with several armed robberies, kidnappings and random killings taking place across the country in the past week alone.
- CNN

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ARTICLES AND COMMENTARY

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VERSUS CONTRACEPTION COVERAGE - (Print)

The Obama administration shocked the Catholic Church last Friday by requiring that religious organizations offer their employees contraceptive services, including sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, as part of their health plans. While churches themselves are exempt, religiously based businesses, including colleges and hospitals, will be required to violate their beliefs in obedience to the new law. In response, Catholic churches across America read a letter on Sunday in protest.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced in January that church-linked groups will be required to abide by new health insurance requirements that mandate coverage for contraception, sterilization, and drugs that induce abortions – not only to cover them, but to offer them without out-of-pocket costs. Religious organizations have one year to get on board.

This is equivalent to requiring all health food stores, even those run by vegans, to offer a dairy section because it's healthy and people might want eggs and milk. It's like demanding all delis, even kosher ones, to offer bacon because non-Jews might come shopping, and to offer that bacon for free. The Catholic Church is up in arms at the government's interference and disregard for the strongly held religious beliefs of millions of Americans.

In a letter of protest, Catholic churches in parishes across the country read variations of a letter which declared in part: "[T]he Obama Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty… We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America's cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God given rights…"

The decision is not just a disappointment to Catholics. The National Association of Evangelicals had also lobbied against the requirement on religious grounds. Tom McClusky of Family Research Council Action condemned the law in a statement, saying, "Despite the fact that certain drugs and devices approved by the FDA can work after conception to destroy a newly developed baby, the Obama Administration mandate still forces all insurance plans to carry these drugs and devices even if employers are morally opposed."

By directly and specifically mandating that religious groups put aside their moral beliefs, the government has placed the opinions of its agents over the values of the people and has therefore violated the First Amendment. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

The rule does exempt churches themselves, but church-affiliated universities, schools, and hospitals are not exempted, even though the same belief systems apply. On Friday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave religious institutions a half-hearted boon by offering a year grace period, as though giving religious groups a year to violate their consciences was a good compromise.

On the other hand, family planning groups were pleased with the decision. "This is good news for millions of women whose access to contraceptive services under this new benefit was being questioned," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

The issue is not whether millions of women will be forced to bear children when they would rather not. Contraceptive services are still available across the country. The issue is that those religious groups that believe certain forms of contraception are wrong should not have to pay for them.

Michael Walsh ranted about the matter on National Review Online, pummeling the Catholic Church for not considering its options to be more than "either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees." He wants the Catholic Church to say that they refuse to recognize the law's moral authority and simply ignore its provisiont. Referring to Poe's short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," Walsh chides, "Once Montresor's got you inebriated and chained to the wall, and is just about to cement the last brick in place, it's way too late to figure out that you're in big trouble. And here you thought he was your friend and neighbor…"

Yet, it is not the end of religious freedom as we have known it. The Supreme Court just recently ruled in favor of religious institutions in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2011), in which the justices unanimously gave religious groups the freedom to hire and fire whomever they wanted without the same danger of discrimination cases feared by other employers.

"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a sweeping, broad decision. "But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission." It isn't the government's job to interfere in such matters, the justices said.

On one hand, the very purpose of most religious institutions is to care for people, to provide for them and give them assistance and provision as sources of help and comfort in an often hostile world. When the government dictates to religious groups how to accomplish these goals, contrary to their moral codes, the job of the people is to tell the government, "You've overstepped your bounds. You need to step back."

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THE DAMASCUS HIGH WIRE: RUSSIA'S TIES TO SYRIA - (Print)

Since before the fall of the old Soviet regime, Russia has been a looming force in Middle East geopolitics. While the U.S. has remained an ardent supporter of Israel, Russia (formerly as part of the U.S.S.R) has backed the Palestinians - not through any particular economic need or even ideological alliance, but rather as a counter balance - to stop the spread of "Western influence" in the region. Key ingredients to Russia's power and influence in the region has been its economic and military ties to Syria, ties that are still strong to this day.

Moscow's friendly relationship with Damascus has gotten a bit more tricky of late, however. On one hand, Assad's heavy-handed mess in Syria is not the stuff to win international popularity polls, not even throughout the Middle East. Russia's continued support for the wildly unpopular Shiite regime in Syria could destroy its credibility with the rest of the Arab League. On the other hand, losing Syria as an ally would greatly hamper (if not make practically impossible) a strong military presence in the region.

The Cold War may be over, but Russia still enjoys its role of countering U.S. influence. Keeping its hand strong in Syria also means retaining an ability to back Palestine at the negotiating tables as an effective mediator.  In an 2004 interview, shortly before he died, Muhammed Abbas, one-time leader of the Palestinian Liberation Front,  was clearly bitter when he said Russia has "not declined but has come to an end," and that Russia no longer played any meaningful role in the region. According to Abbas, "Russia is not carrying out the duties of a mediator on a par with the U.S. Even if Russia does accomplish something, it does it shyly, as if by accident."

Yet Russian military and economic ties to Syria are anything but "shy." According to some reports, recent Russian arms sales to Syria are worth $4 billion, including fighter jets and advanced missiles. Russian business investments in Syria encompass infrastructure, energy and tourism, amounting to nearly $20 billion. A Russian engineering company, Stroytransgaz, is constructing a natural gas processing plant about 200 kilometers east of Homs. The Syrian regime also provides Russia with a key strategic asset: a deep warm-water port at Tartus.

Tartus presently garrisons Moscow's growing Mediterranean fleet, and is therefore worth defending to the Kremlin. The recent shipment of arms delivered to the port underscored Russia's commitment to its multibillion-dollar arms deal while ignoring an E.U. arms embargo. The port is being upgraded to accommodate larger vessels, and Assad declared the port would eventually be home to some of Moscow's nuclear-armed warships. The importance of the port may not be as great as it was in Soviet times, but unfettered access to the high seas remains a driving force for Russian strategic thinking as Russia's main ports are either ice-locked for much of the year or land-locked by straits controlled by other powers.

Ignoring The World:
Normally, financial investment is trumped in the face of international criticism, especially for a country attempting to maintain its influence as a mediating force in foreign affairs. For instance, The United States had billions invested in the Mubarak regime in Egypt, yet halted its support as the people rioted. Yet this seems to be less of a concern for Russia, which, as the world's largest oil producer and second largest exporter, is in no need of oil supplies from the Arab world. Moscow also reaps the benefits of controlling regional energy markets. Russia therefore has no need to appease the predominately Sunni Arab bloc, which is currently acting in tandem with the West in opposing the Assad regime. Instead, Russia has major geopolitical and strategic considerations that dictate supporting Damascus, and for this reason, it appears more important for Russia to demonstrate a confident and sovereign foreign policy in defiance of the West.

In the end, Russia's bold declarations and actions in support of the Assad regime may be, as The New York Times notes, "cold calculations meant to revive its position as a global superpower." This may be true, however, there is an ideological interest in Russian support for Assad's minority regime. Russia has had its share of problems with Islamic dissident groups (c.f. Chechnya), and thus has an interest in "sending a message" to prevent rebellions within its own territory.

For whatever the ideological or strategic reasons, Russia has chosen to back Assad against the U.S., U.N., and Arab League resolutions calling for his abdication, and a re-chartering of Syrian government. The final ramifications of this decision remain to be seen, but one thing is clear: Russia may be forced to choose between a strengthening of its military and economic presence in the Middle East versus its presence as a source of anti-Western influence.

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THE STATE OF THE UNION - (Print)

President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week presented a struggling but succeeding America, a country successfully climbing from its financial hole and taking strides to fix its problems. His speech presented an America with hope. The President had a great deal to say that could appeal to both sides of the political aisle, from giving tax breaks to new businesses to keeping college education costs down. As is often the case, however, the reality is much harsher and grandiose plans much more difficult to accomplish than are expressed in a few pleasant words on a January evening.

There's a lot to be said about giving a man hope. Hope encourages and inspires. It spurs people to attempt what appears to be the impossible. President Obama has long been good at presenting the future as one of hope. Unfortunately, thus far his ability to paint lovely pictures has proved much more deft than his ability to make those pictures a reality.

President Obama promoted a number of healthy ideas for America in his speech. He called for policies that would encourage manufacturers to return their factories from abroad to the shores of the United States. He called for cleaning up Congress and for keeping taxes low for the middle class. He praised America's military and reminded us that the hunt for Osama bin Laden is over.

He also said some things worth looking at twice.

Trimming The Fat:
Late into his speech, President Obama said, "I've asked this Congress to grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our Government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American people." His offer to streamline the government with Congress' authority appeals to those who want a smaller, less behemoth government. He did not give examples, so it's not certain what his "leaner" government would look like. Regardless, if the President truly wants to trim the fat in government, he already has the authority to do so right now. Remember when Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981? They were replaced, but the President does have the authority to get rid of people. Obama could go on a spree of firing government workers in the Executive Branch, and America would applaud. (If he wanted to get serious, the President could eliminate the Department of Education, for example, and leave education decision making to the state and local governments. After all, the federal government's involvement hasn't helped much to improve the U.S. education system since 1980, and Obama noted in his speech that the schools should have more flexibility to make decisions.)

Instead, however, President Obama informed the American people that he is in fact creating more government. For instance, he is forming The President Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices in countries "like China." He is creating a special unit of federal prosecutors and state attorneys to investigate risky mortgage lending practices. Whether or not these prove useful, they also don't fall into the category of trimming government.

Bad Mortgages:
Regarding the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that contributed to the current financial crisis, President Obama said, "mortgages had been sold to people who couldn't afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses with other people's money." On one hand, the President wants to investigate risky lending practices, and he rebuked banks for selling mortgages to people who shouldn't have taken out those loans. On the other hand, he said, "I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks."

It is not the responsible loan-seekers who are getting turned down for refinancing; those of questionable responsibility are the ones having a harder time getting new loans – especially right now. The banks were badly burned when streams of homeowners defaulted on their mortgages, leaving behind houses worth much less than their loan amounts, and banks don't want to risk new loans on people who aren't quite so responsible. If America refuses to offer any more bailouts, as the President warned in his speech, the government shouldn't force the banks to offer loans to people considered reasonable risks.

Oil and Clean Energy:
On the subject of energy, President Obama took a whatever-we-can-get approach. America is hungry for energy, and the President recognized that fact. He said America would expand offshore drilling, and he encouraged the tapping of natural gas resources. He pressed for the United States to be competitive in developing renewable energy.

He also said he wanted to "help" manufacturers and businesses to waste less energy by upgrading their buildings. It remains to be seen what that "help" means. Offering tax incentives would certainly help. Burdening companies with heavy "energy-saving" requirements, on the other hand, might just weigh down already struggling businesses.

The President did not mention the Keystone Pipeline, which, considering the massive controversy surrounding it, was probably politically wise of him. In January, Obama rejected a move by Republicans to approve the pipeline, which would have created thousands of jobs and brought oil from Alberta's Athabasca Oil Sands to several locations in the United States. Serious environmental concerns have brought the project to a halt, but not without frustration from those who see the oil and job production as worth the trouble, especially while millions of Americans are desperately looking for work.

Seeing Red:
Then there's deficit spending. Anything great that the Executive Branch wants to do must take into account the fact that America is having financial problems along with most of the world. The Congressional Budget Office projects the federal budget deficit as $1.1 trillion for fiscal year 2012 if current laws remain unchanged. That's an "improvement", down from $1.3 trillion last year and $1.4 trillion in 2009, but fantastically higher than the 2008 deficit of $248 billion and surpluses at the turn of the century. There are a number of factors involved in these record high deficits - from attempts to infuse the economy with massive federal "stimulus" packages, to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the fact that tax revenues drop during a recession.

The harsh reality is that the federal government is in a serious hole of debt, and it gets deeper every minute that goes by. When the President says things like, we should, "give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years," while keeping interest rates on student loans from doubling, the prudent question is then, "Okay. How are we going to pay for that?"

Mark Kantrowitz notes in The New York Times that 700,000 additional federal work-study jobs would come with a $1 billion-a-year price tag, on top of the $7 billion it would cost to continue offering students Stafford loans at a low 3.4 percent interest rate. It's true that subsidizing student loans and work study jobs are widely helpful to financially strapped students, and yet, the federal government has already had to cut back on Pell Grants to low-income students, dropping the income threshold for those can receive a full Pell Grant from $32,000 to $23,000. If the government is cutting back on Pell Grants, it doesn't have money to add more work study jobs while at the same time extending a 3.4 interest rate for subsidized Stafford loans to 7.4 million students.  It's not a matter of what would be nice to do, it's a matter of what is practical.

The same goes for infrastructure projects. The President spoke of crumbling infrastructure and said, "In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nationbuilding right here at home."

The problem is that much of our war spending has been deficit spending. We've spent a good $2.3-2.7 trillion in rooting out al Qaeda for 10 years in Afghanistan. That's about $250 billion per year – less than the average deficit during the Bush (43) years. If we want to cut the deficit, we cannot divert the money we were using on wars to other projects because we were borrowing that money in the first place. The stimulus packages were already supposed to have provided money for fixing infrastructure, but every state has its extensive wish list, and the possibilities are endless. Would a high-speed rail line from New York to Washington be useful? Certainly. Would it be nice to have high speed internet in the Appalachians? Yes. Is it the right time for the federal government to spend billions of dollars on these projects? Not if we are digging ourselves into an ever deepening hole.

Taxing The Rich:
The President's answer to our money problems is to tax the super wealthy at a mandatory 30 percent rate. Warren Buffet, Obama declared, uses loopholes to pay a lower rate than his secretary. It would definitely behoove America to simplify the tax code, and if we want to talk "fair", a word the President used repeatedly through his speech, it is certainly more fair to tax everybody, rich and poor, at the same rate. The President doesn't actually want fair, though. The President simply wants the rich to take a bigger chunk of the tax burden. (Not that the middle or lower classes should be taxed more. Who wants somebody pushing by on $25,000 or even $50,000 per year to pay 30 percent of their income in taxes? Have a mercy and let them keep as much of their money as possible.)   It may indeed hurt the multi-millionaire less than the blue collar worker to pay a larger portion of his income, but fairness really is not the issue.

In the end, though, even if the law said rich folks should hand over 50 percent of their income each year, that would not guarantee those tax revenues would land in the government's coffers. As Thomas Sowell noted last November, "[T]he genuinely rich are likely to be the least harmed by high tax rates in the top brackets. People who are looking for jobs are likely to be the most harmed, because they cannot equally easily transfer themselves overseas to take the jobs that are being created there by American investments that are fleeing high tax rates at home. Small businesses — hardware stores, gas stations, restaurants — are likewise unable to transfer themselves overseas. So they are far more likely to be unable to escape the higher tax rates that are supposedly being imposed on “millionaires and billionaires,” as President Obama calls them. Moreover, small businesses are what create most of the new jobs."

What's more, the Buffet Rule does not really deal with the innate problems in the tax code. "They're using a baseball bat, rather than a scalpel" by applying the 30 percent minimum rate, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "By proposing the Buffett Rule, they're saying: 'We don't like how the tax code is working. We're worried that there are some very wealthy people who aren't paying a fair share,' " he said. "But instead of eliminating deductions and simplifying the tax code, they're just introducing more bells and whistles."

Choosing Our Own Light Bulbs:
The U.S. government has gotten increasingly bulky and has become patient with owing vast amounts of money. The U.S. paid off its debts after the Revolutionary War and again after the Civil War. The American government hasn't paid back what it's borrowed since the 1930s and WWII, and the prospects are not getting prettier. America is still breathing and so hope remains, but there are extremely serious matters that the United States needs to squarely face before it gets too much later.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels responded to the President's speech, saying, "The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades…In word and deed, the President and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection. Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids; why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb!"

We need to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other, and demand that the federal government cut its spending and its overwhelming need to be involved in every aspect of our lives. When talking about the auto industry, President Obama spoke of depending on Americans. "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity," he said. For the state of the union to improve, the U.S. government needs to really take those words to heart, to depend on Americans without having to constantly look over their shoulders. More importantly, we the American people need to take charge of ourselves, work hard, use ingenuity, and not depend on Washington to feed us. If we want to free ourselves from debt, if we want to live in a country of liberty rather than slavery, we need to be a wise and self-governed people. If we manage ourselves well, there will be no need for a burdensome and expensive nanny-state government, regardless of who sits in the White House.

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MEMORY VERSE OF THE WEEK

For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and [without] teraphim: Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days.
- Hosea 3:4-5 KJV

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