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8370NEWS -- 2013.11.30.Saturday

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  • James Martin
    Nov 30 3:22 PM
      Saturday 30 November 2013
       
      1) DemocracyNow.org -- Yip Harburg -- Over the Rainbow
      2) Privatization and the Affordable Care Act
      3) Fox News: Now the Anti-Obamacare Propaganda Channel
      4) A Pope's Pointed Message
      5) Carl Sagan: The Earth Is Where We Make Our Stand
      6) The Mormon church won't drop its opposition to gay marriage
      7) Croatians protest ahead of anti-gay marriage referendum
       
       
      EXTRA -- working overtime on bigotry
      Liberty Counsel, professional anti-gay activists, decided to release the trailer to their first feature film entitled “Uncommon” which stars none other than the illustrious Erik Estrada. - See more at: http://aattp.org/anti-gay-activists-liberty-counsel-released-their-first-feature-film-and-its-everything-you-thought-it-would-be-video/#sthash.WUINugwP.dpuf
      Liberty Counsel, professional anti-gay activists, decided to release the trailer to their first feature film entitled “Uncommon” which stars none other than the illustrious Erik Estrada. - See more at: http://aattp.org/anti-gay-activists-liberty-counsel-released-their-first-feature-film-and-its-everything-you-thought-it-would-be-video/#sthash.WUINugwP.dpuf
      Liberty Counsel, professional anti-gay activists, decided to release the trailer to their first feature film entitled “Uncommon” which stars none other than the illustrious Erik Estrada. - See more at: http://aattp.org/anti-gay-activists-liberty-counsel-released-their-first-feature-film-and-its-everything-you-thought-it-would-be-video/#sthash.WUINugwP.dpuf
       
       
      1)
      On Thursday 28 November, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.of A., www.DemocracyNow.org featured a tribute of Blacklisted lyricist Yip Harburg: The man who put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz.
      All the hidden political meanings in the movie were told.
       
      His name might not be familiar to many, but his songs are sung by millions around the world. Today, we take a journey through the life and work of Yip Harburg, the Broadway lyricist who wrote such hits as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and who put the music into The Wizard of Oz. Born into poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Harburg always included a strong social and political component to his work, fighting racism and poverty. A lifelong socialist, Harburg was blacklisted and hounded throughout much of his life. We speak with Harburg’s son, Ernie Harburg, about the music and politics of his father. Then we take an in-depth look at The Wizard of Oz, and hear a medley of Harburg’s Broadway songs and the politics of the times in which they were created.
       
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      Friday 29 November 2013 the show was about slavery and how many of the elite universities in the East were financed by the slave trade.
      We spend the hour with the author of a new book, 10 years in the making, that examines how many major U.S. universities — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Rutgers, Williams and the University of North Carolina, among others — are drenched in the sweat, and sometimes the blood, of Africans brought to the United States as slaves. In "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities," Massachusetts Institute of Technology American history professor Craig Steven Wilder reveals how the slave economy and higher education grew up together. "When you think about the colonial world, until the American Revolution, there is only one college in the South, William & Mary ... The other eight colleges were all Northern schools, and they’re actually located in key sites, for the most part, of the merchant economy where the slave traders had come to power and rose as the financial and intellectual backers of new culture of the colonies," Wilder says.
       
      also
      Filmmaker Uncovers Her Family’s Shocking Slave-Trading History, Urges Americans to Explore Own Roots
      "Traces of the Trade"
       
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      2)

      Privatization and the Affordable Care Act

      Saturday, 30 November 2013 00:18 By Charles M Smith, Truthout | News
       

      One of the main problems with the Affordable Care Act web site began with the Reagan administration and has adversely affected government performance since then. At that time, the management meme of concentrating on your core capabilities and contracting out other processes was applied to government. Government should contract out such non-core capabilities as logistics, food services and information technology (IT).

      While it all sounded good, the policy had motives other than improved government operations. The practice of taking taxpayer money away from government salaries and moving it to contractor revenue and profits was certainly a part of conservative and business goals. If government were left with fewer internal capabilities and then failed at some important program, well, we told you government does not work.

      These policies of contracting out government work also help all administrations claim they were reducing the size of government. Even though as much money - or more - is spent, there are fewer civil servants on the payroll, and that was a good political message. So from Reagan, through Bush I, Bill Clinton and Bush II, contracting out was standard policy. For this reason, President Obama inherited a government, especially a Health and Human Services agency, with no internal IT expertise. When the Affordable Care Act required a quite complicated web site and interface with other parts of health care networks, it became time to write contracts.

      Excellent reporting in the Washington Examiner has revealed some details on the contracting for this web site. In an October 13, 2013, article, Richard Pollack reported that "CGI Federal, the U.S. subsidiary of a Canadian company" received the award of a contract to do the web site work. The contract was awarded on a sole source basis under a contract that CGI qualified for in 2007. After qualifying, CGI was eligible for direct awards, although competition was the preferred way to place such contracts. Although the Health and Human Services contracting office will not comment, Pollock's sources indicate the award was awarded to CGI without competition.

      CGI had "an uneven record of IT pricing and contract performance," according to Pollack's reporting. It had failed on a contract to produce a database registry for Ontario. The Canadian province had to cancel the contract and has refused to pay any fee on the contract. In November 2010, the GAO denied a CGI protest on another contract, noting that CGI had been rated only fair (out of an excellent/good/fair/poor rating scheme) on previous contract work.

      According to The Washington Post, CGI Federal moved into the US market by acquiring American Management Systems. The Post wrote, "A year before CGI Group acquired AMS in 2004, AMS settled a lawsuit brought by the head of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which had hired the company to upgrade the agency's computer system. AMS had gone $60 million over budget, and virtually all of the computer code it wrote turned out to be useless, according to a report by a US Senate committee." The AMS people were the core of the Affordable Care Act team.

      Did CGI Federal have an incentive to perform or to make as much profit as possible? Poor performance does not appear to cost CGI Federal government work. In November 2013, the Army Contracting Command at Rock Island, Illinois, announced that on October 31 it awarded Option Year 4 against Contract W52P1J-10-C-0003 to CGI Federal for services in support of the Army Sustainment Command's Integrated Materiel Management Operation System. The awarded amount was $20.7 million, increasing the contract value to $120 million.

      Why HHS decided that of all qualified IT contractors, CGI was the one to go with without further competition is hard to explain. Competitions can be done very quickly, especially if there is a pool of previously qualified contractors. Only fair performance on previous contracts will generally disqualify you from competing for new awards, because there are generally several contractors with excellent or at least good past performance.

      So far, HHS will not release documents without a Freedom of Information request. Mr. Pollack's article notes that such requests can take more than a year for a response and that the response often does not provide the requested information. HHS appears to be stonewalling the release of information. This raises questions concerning how CGI received the award. Past Truthout reports indicate the possibility of some form of networking, rather than best value, as the deciding factor.

      Using CGI Federal has resulted in poor contractor performance. All reports indicate an inability to handle high traffic, poor links between federal and state exchanges, glitches that crash the system and inoperable internal site links. Reuters reported, "The level of functionality they're offering today is worse than we might have anticipated. I expected a level where you could at least get to the point of shopping," said Austin Bordelon, an analyst with health care consulting group Leavitt Partners, who monitored federal and state marketplaces through the day. "But really, you just can't get through the door."

      Several reviews of the government site have questioned the design of the site and the architecture of the operational aspects. It appears that to create an account, the personal computer must load a large number of programs and a large amount of data, which can crash many home computers. The site, of course, should have been designed to work with PCs from the start. On first review, the approach taken by CGI appears to have been inadequate for the required use.

      These problems are inherent to privatization and the use of a contractor for this job. Had HHS used internal web site design and IT support, the process had greater potential for success. A team would have been put together for the task with constant contact between the Affordable Care Act implementation team, who had responsibility for the site requirements and the IT experts putting the site together. The team would have had a goal of ensuring that the web site worked, not of maximizing company profits.

      Privatization required using a contractor for the project. At this point requirements had to be transmitted to a contracting officer, who is the government official authorized to award and manage the contract. Any changes regarding requirements, price or schedule must go through the contracting officer. Communication between the requirements people at HHS and the contractor doing the IT work are much more difficult than they would be for an internal team. The contractor is on notice not to accept any requirement changes unless authorized by the contracting officer. Sources indicate that there were a number of requirements changes that had to go through the contracting process, some fairly late for October 1 implementation.

      Following award, there must be proper oversight of a contract. Once an agency has decided to privatize IT work, it often loses in-house expertise capable of contract oversight. There is simply more money to be made by working for contractors. Even the Defense Department, with the Defense Contract Management Agency devoted to this task, had a hard time finding the oversight people for the vast increase in service contracts in the past 20 years.

      Since the Reagan administration, privatization has been the preferred way to provide services, such as IT, in the government. The problems with implementation of the Affordable Care Act highlight the ways in which this policy can go wrong. Opponents of the act will use its IT problems as a way to attack the progressive goal of providing greater access to health care to those who cannot afford necessary insurance. It will be cruelly ironic if the conservative policy of privatization will, by failing, further another conservative goal of restricting access to health care.

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      My comment ---
      Privatization has never been proven beneficial to the government or to the people. 
      It is quite beneficial for the private contractors.
       
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      3)

      Fox News: Now the Anti-Obamacare Propaganda Channel

      By Reed Richardson, The Nation

      30 November 2013

      The evolution hasn't been overnight, but if you spend any time watching Fox News nowadays the endstate is unmistakable. When it comes to the network 's cable and online programming there are now but two overarching rules in place.

      1) Take every opportunity to bash Obamacare.

      2) When covering anything else, see Rule #1.

      Anecdotal evidence of Fox News 's willingness to obsess over Obamacare to the detriment of other big news is aplenty, as I documented after sitting through six hours of Election Night coverage earlier this month. Ironically, the network 's fixation on the President 's healthcare reform law that night caused it to be late to the game in adopting the mainstream media 's McAulliffe-almost-lost-because-of-Obamacare meme. (Which was total bunk.)

      But the most damning proof of this now singular devotion to all-Obamacare, all-the-time coverage comes in statistical form. A quick term search on FoxNews.com, for example, offers up a revealing pattern on the number of stories posted there for the past year/month/week/day:

      Obamacare 1698 427 88 18

      NSA 716 92 12 1

      Benghazi 792 60 7 1

      IRS 503 46 14 5

      Budget deficit 467 18 2 0

      As each of these much-touted-by-the-right-wing "scandals " have withered and died on the media vine without bearing fruit, the alleged horrors of Obamacare have been planted by Fox News to take their place. So much so that Fox 's Obamacare coverage now even eclipses cataclysmic worldwide tragedies like Typhoon Haiyan. Just how dramatically out of whack Fox 's news judgment is was quantified by Pew Research study last week. In tracking 20 hours of programming across five days in mid-November, Pew found Fox News devoted nearly eight hours - almost 40% of its entire newshole - to just one issue: Obamacare. As for covering the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in decades, Fox News devoted just six minutes of airtime - the equivalent of two commercial breaks. (Even opinion-heavy MSNBC spent 41 minutes covering Haiyan, and just over three hours on Obamacare.)

      To be sure, Obamacare is a big story and some critical media coverage of the botched Healthcare.gov rollout is certainly warranted, as are questions about the president 's "If you like your plan, you can keep " broken promise. But fair-minded accountability journalism is not what Roger Ailes is trying to achieve with his network 's rabid focus on Obamacare. It 's not the quantity of Fox News 's coverage that 's problematic; it 's the quality. Or should I say lack thereof. When taken as whole, Fox 's news products have clearly metastasized into a toxic media mass of one-sided hyperbole, willful misinformation, and outright anti-Obamacare propaganda.

      Consider these "fair and balanced " headlines - some "news, " some opinion - from just the past few days:

      "ObamaCare: A Doctor 's Nightmare "

      "ObamaCare Slams Smokers with Sky-High Premium Costs "

      "Unions Given 'Special ' ObamaCare Deal "

      "Obamacare Forcing People into Medicaid "

      "How Should GOP Attack ObamaCare? "

      "How ObamaCare Has Diminished the President "

      "Dog Has Bone to Pick with ObamaCare "

      Or my personal nominee in the could-have-run-on-Free-Republic category:

      "Obamacare 's Arrogance, Corruption, and Abuse is Just Beginning "

      But buried below the rampant bias evident in these headlines are even more misleading talking points. In the Medicaid story from above, for instance, the writer stokes fears of Obamacare by citing a flawed, oft-debunked study that suggests that Medicaid patients die twice as often as those with private insurance. (Here's why that's wrong.) And my favorite wingnut-special column from above throws everything but the socialized communal kitchen sink at the reader, whether it's tired canards like "Chicago-style corruption " and "replac[ing] free markets " or actual falsehoods like Obamacare is ballooning healthcare costs (nope), and the law has ignited a wave of businesses hiring part-time workers (sorry).

      In the past week, however, Fox News's radically dishonest coverage has moved beyond to surreal to the absurd. Now so blinded by its outrage over the healthcare reform law, the network's programming can no longer see anything else as but a reflection of Obamacare. Of course, the Iran nuclear deal was the big news over this past weekend, but even above and beyond the network's standard bellicose blovation [a sample chyron: "Sucker's Deal "], Fox News is there to remind viewers that it's all just a transparent attempt at distraction.

      There was half-term Gov. Sarah Palin on Fox News Sunday singing this same song to host Chris Wallace about Senator Harry Reid's exercising of the "nuclear option. " But when, in the midst of his obsequiousness, Wallace actually pointed out to Palin that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says Obamacare will give healthcare to 30-million uninsured Americans while the latest GOP plan would only cover three million, Palin's misdirection-as-response was the very definition of tinfoil-hat chutzpah. First, she dismissed the CBO's numbers as unreliable and then had the temerity to call it a "sad state of affairs" that "a normal American" such as herself has to be so cynical about government. And, for that matter, why hasn't Obama ever proved that his FEMA re-education camps don't exist? Probably because if he did, it'd all be part of grand scheme to…you guessed it…distract from Obamacare's failures.

      Sure, Fox's lukewarm embrace of Obama conspiracies is nothing new. But still, it's a wake-up call to our discourse when former President Bush spokesperson and U.S. foreign policy history buff Dana Perino prefaces a question about the timing of the Iran deal to conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer with the always responsible phrase: "I 'm not the biggest conspiracy theorist, but… "

      As you'll no doubt be shocked, shocked to learn, Krauthammer agreed with her implied suggestion that this whole diplomatic initiative with Iran was little more than a panicked put-on by the White House. And who could argue with his logic, particularly since he does such a fine job of it himself: "They clearly were in a hurry, though they probably would have gotten here with or without the collapse of Obamacare, but it sure gave them an extra incentive to get in a hurry because they need any distraction, any distraction possible for a government in collapse. " So, not even credit given for being an efficient appeaser? Tough room.

      OK, so what? Fox News long ago - like since its first day on the air - cast aside any pretensions about objectivity to promote its owner's and president's political preferences. And Obama's presence in the White House has only turned that latent animosity up to 11. But when a network so fully walls itself off from impartiality and honesty, it really does matter, particularly when one political party is so in thrall to their propaganda that it bases its dogma on it.

      Case in point, only minutes after the nuclear deal with Iran was reached on Friday night, Republican Senator John Cornyn was Tweeting this: "Amazing what [White House] will do to distract from [Obama]care. " And as the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted, Republicans - just like before the 2012 election and during the government shutdown last month - are again cocooning themselves inside a parallel universe where the Obama-is-doomed storylines on Fox are pre-destined to occur and unprecedented obstruction of the government is a winning strategy. In the long run, they'll be sorely disappointed once again, but thanks to Fox News, our nation will have to suffer through Republicans making the same momentous mistakes once more.

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      Lots of comments at the URL.
       
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      4)

      A Pope's Pointed Message

      Friday, 29 November 2013 01:02 By Eugene Robinson, Washington Post Writers Group | Op-Ed
       
      Washington, DC -- "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."

      That passage is not from some Occupy Wall Street manifesto. It was written by Pope Francis in a stunning new treatise on the Catholic Church and its role in society -- and it is a powerful reminder that however tiresome the political trench warfare in Washington may be, we have a duty to fight on.

      The full implementation of Obamacare matters. Raising the minimum wage matters. Reforming a financial system "which rules rather than serves," Francis noted, matters. Hearing the anguished voices of those left hopeless by poverty matters; answering their pleas with education, health care and employment matters even more.

      Francis, the first Jesuit and first non-European in the modern era to be named pope, clearly intends to make a real difference in the world -- too much of a difference, it appears, for some conservatives: Sarah Palin, a born-again Christian who attends a nondenominational church, said recently that Francis' open-arms attitude on social issues "has taken me aback." Would that a few more words might take her all the way aback to the obscurity from which she came.

      Francis' remarks on economics and poverty came in a 50,000-word Apostolic Exhortation, released Tuesday, that gives the clearest vision to date of how he sees the church and how he intends to reshape it. In its boldness, the statement suggests that just as John Paul II played a political role in the fall of communism, so might Francis try to help shape events by obliging the faithful to recognize, and resist, a growing pattern of inequality throughout the world.

      "To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed," Francis wrote. "Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people's pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else's responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

      Francis explicitly calls for "financial reform," though he wisely does not lay out a policy agenda. But in a passage likely to make libertarians want to hide amid the dense thickets of Ayn Rand's prose, where no light can penetrate, Francis writes that "the private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them."

      The basic positions Francis takes on economic and social justice are not new; all recent popes have expressed a similar critique of modern capitalist society, including John Paul II, whose views on poverty and the need for community are often conveniently overlooked by those who would paint him as Ronald Reagan in robes.

      But no recent pope has been so forceful in denouncing the "idolatry of money" and making the inexorable rise of inequality one of the church's central concerns. Francis intends his message to be heard. I hope leaders everywhere, and especially in Washington, are listening.

      Jesus commanded his apostles to give to the poor. Yet many  elected officials who claim to follow Jesus' teachings are determined to keep the poor from receiving health care, food assistance, housing subsidies and a host of other benefits. Inequality is celebrated as a virtue. Life, we are told with a shrug, is sometimes unfair.

      But for Christians, Francis reminds us, life is supposed to be as fair and compassionate as we can make it. Money is a false idol, a golden calf. Our sacred responsibility is to one another.

      Amen, Your Holiness. Amen.

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      Comments at the Truth-Out URL.

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      See also http://wealthmanagement.ml.com/publish/mkt/campaigns/ATW/sitelet/index.html

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      5)

      A sense of wonder

      Carl Sagan: The Earth Is Where We Make Our Stand

      Video --- click on URL

      "In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us."

      Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
       

      Posted November 30, 2013

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      My comment --- Carl Sagan's PBS TV series "Cosmos" in the early 1980s was one of the best things ever on PBS.
       
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      6)
      The Guardian, London

      The Mormon church won't drop its opposition to gay marriage

      Now that Romney is not a factor anymore, the Mormon church is back fighting same-sex marriage. Hawaii was a good example.
      Friday 29 November 2013 10.00 EST
       

      The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormon church) recently reneged on its commitment to stay out of the gay marriage fight.

      For those who need a reminder, the LDS church was the major force – financial and otherwise – behind California's Proposition 8 that passed five years ago to deny marriage equality to gay and lesbian couples. While the supreme court overturned Prop 8 this year, the issue is still very much alive in many states.

      The image conscious Mormon church received such a pounding from all it did during the Prop 8 campaign that they decided they better play nice and quit all their gay-bashing. The church's own pollster Gary C Lawrence told the Washington Post that after Prop 8, the Mormon church lost 5% of its public support and was tied with Muslims as the least popular of major religions in America.

      While the church's image suffered badly, the other reason the Mormon church was sitting out last year's gay marriage debates was so that it would not jeopardize in any way shape or form what was deemed the "Mormon moment". That was their long-held desire to elect the first Mormon US president, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. That plan went up in smoke after he lost badly to President Obama a year ago.

      Now that Romney is not a factor anymore, the Mormon church is back fighting same-sex marriage. We discovered two letters that were read to all Mormon church members in Hawaii as the state was considering whether to legalize same sex marriage. The letters signed by high-ranking Mormon leaders asked church members to give of their "time and means" in order to defeat a bill. Fortunately, Hawaii didn't listen to the Mormon church. It passed the bill earlier this month, becoming the 15th US state to allow gay marriage.

      People are, of course, allowed to have their own views on same sex marriage or any other issue. But it gets complicated when an official religious organization meddles and lobbies so prominently in politics. I sent a letter to the Hawaii Ethics Commission asking them to investigate whether there were Mormon church employees who had worked over five hours in a month to defeat the bill, or if the church had spent more than $750 on lobbying expenses. If the church met either threshold, they would be required to register more of their employees as lobbyists. We are awaiting the results of that investigation.

      The Mormon church even pulled out its top law professor, Lynn Wardle, from church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They flew him to Hawaii to testify against the gay marriage bill. Professor Wardle has long been the church's leading legal mouthpiece in fighting gay marriage across the country.

      The recently released official Mormon church documents published by Mother Jones, show that church has been acting more like Exxon-Mobil or AT&T than a religion. They have had up to 23 lobbyists in 23 states all over the country working to pass laws and constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and opposing each and every marriage equality bill.

      It is astounding that the Mormon church appears to use tax deductible donations given to the church to lobby and run political issue campaigns. Official LDS church documents show the measures the LDS church took to keep its involvement secret and obscure the source of its funds.

      Perhaps it's time that the US Department of Justice and the IRS take a closer look at the Mormon church's political activities to determine if its tax-exempt status allows for this. If the Mormon church wants to act like a corporation and not a religion, then its income should likely be taxed.

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      ---
      ---
      The Mormon Church has told the UT State Supreme Court that It Does NOT have to report on Sex Abuse suffered by its Child Members, regardless of Utah State Law making it Mandatory.
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        7)

        Croatians protest ahead of anti-gay marriage referendum

        By Veselica | AFP – Saturday 30 November 2013
         

        Zagreb (AFP) - Gay rights supporters in conservative and mainly Catholic Croatia staged protests on Saturday on the eve of a controversial referendum that could outlaw same-sex marriage in the EU's newest member state.

        More than 1,000 people braved the cold and rainy weather to gather in a square in downtown Zagreb for a protest march against Sunday's vote, which they see as discriminatory.

        "We urge voters... to protect minority rights so that no one in Croatia becomes a second class citizen," gay rights activist Sanja Juras told the crowd.

        At the end of their hour-long march through the city centre, under a heavy police presence, the protesters unfurled a giant rainbow flag outside the parliament building.

        Demonstrators taking part in the "I vote against" march also carried banners in rainbow colours, reading: "Homosexuality is not a choice but hatred is" and "Let's protect all loves".

        Sunday's referendum on whether to amend the country's constitution to define marriage as a "union between a woman and a man" is the result of a Church-backed initiative. Croatia's constitution currently does not define marriage.

        The vote has sparked a heated public debate, splitting the country's 4.2 million inhabitants.

        Many conservatives in Croatia, which joined the European Union this year, began fearing that same-sex marriage would be allowed in the country after the centre-left government announced a bill enabling gay couples to register as "life partners".

        In May, the Church-backed In the Name of the Family group collected over 700,000 signatures seeking a nationwide vote on gay marriage.

        "We believe that marriage, children and family are so important issues that the whole society has to decide on them," the leader of the initiative, Zeljka Markic, told AFP.

        The government, human rights activists and prominent public figures have all spoken out against the referendum, urging people to cast a 'no' vote.

        "With this sentence in the constitution we would make lives of our fellow citizens, who are a sexual minority, more difficult," warned Damir Kovacic, who took part in Saturday's protest with his wife.

        "And tomorrow a referendum about someone else's rights might be on the agenda," the 34-year-old electrical engineer told AFP.

        But in a country where almost 90 percent of population are Roman Catholics, the Church has vehemently urged followers to vote 'yes'.

        "Marriage is the only union enabling procreation," said Croatia's Cardinal Josip Bozanic in a letter read out in churches.

        "This is the key difference between a marriage... and other unions."

        The latest survey showed that 68 percent of Croatians on Sunday would vote 'yes' compared to 27 percent against.

        "It is natural and normal that a child grows up in a marriage of a man and a woman," Katarina Mitermajer, a doctor in her 50s, who plans to vote 'yes', told AFP.

        Attitudes towards gay rights have slowly been improving since Croatia's first Gay Pride parade was held in Zagreb in 2002, when dozens of participants were beaten up by extremists.

        Pride parades are now staged regularly if still under strong security, while gay rights are more openly discussed in the media and people are becoming less fearful of "coming out".

        In 2003 Croatia adopted a law recognising same-sex couples who have lived together for at least three years. Yet apart from official acknowledgement, the measure granted them few rights.

        Sunday's vote is the first citizens-initiated referendum since Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

        Under Croatian law, a referendum does not require a majority voter turnout to be valid.

        ***