Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 18 2014 6:36 PM

Surprise: Catholic Church is Still Homophobic

Roman Catholic bishops voted down what would have been a historic shift in the church’s approach toward gays and the divorced. The draft report that called for greater openness toward these two groups did not get the necessary two-thirds majority at a Catholic Church synod even though the controversial sections had been largely watered down in recent days. The Vatican tried to play down the vote, saying the important fact is that the issue is being discussed in the first place. "It is important not to over-analyze," a Vatican spokesman said. "The fathers of the synod never saw themselves as reaching a final conclusion with this document."

But there was no hiding that the failure to get the votes illustrates “the deep divisions facing the hierarchy as Pope Francis continues his push for a more open church,” notes Josephine Mckenna of Religion News Service.

The document did not obtain a two-thirds majority among the almost 200 bishops who gathered at a Vatican assembly on the family even though the language that many had hailed as groundbreaking had been severely toned down since it was first revealed on Monday. The title of the section on gays, for example, switched from “Welcoming homosexuals” to “Pastoral attention towards persons with homosexual orientations.” While the original version included talk of “accepting and valuing their (homosexuals') sexual orientations” and providing a “a welcoming home” for gays, the final document merely said that discrimination “is to be avoided,” details Reuters. While the initial version talked of how members of same-sex couples could provide “mutual aid” and “precious support” to each other during difficult times, the new version makes it clear “there is no foundation whatsoever” to compare same-sex to opposite-sex unions.

Despite the toned down language on gays, the section that dealt with the issue still failed in a vote of 118 to 62. But the Associated Press says the final number may reflect a number of protest votes by progressive bishops who did not like the watered-down language.

Paragraphs that dealt with whether divorced Catholics could receive communion also failed to pass. During his final address to the Synod, Francis received a long standing ovation after he warned against “hostile rigidity” of “so-called traditionalists” while also criticizing progressives who would “bandage a wound before treating it.”

The BBC’s David Willey points out that while the paragraphs on gays and the divorced failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to be incorporated into the final document, they did get more than 50 percent of the vote. “This allows the necessary leeway for further discussion before the synod reconvenes in Rome in an expanded form in a year's time,” writes Willey.

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Oct. 18 2014 3:03 PM

Obama Urges Against Ebola “Hysteria,” Says Travel Ban Could Make Things Worse

President Obama called for calm on Saturday, pushing back against those who say the government is losing its ability to keep tabs on the outbreak. As the New York Times reports the president is privately seething at what he sees as failures on multiple levels on how authorities have reacted to Ebola, Obama used his weekly address to try to put things in perspective. “This is a serious disease,” Obama said, “but we can't give in to hysteria or fear—because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need.”

Obama also made it clear he has no intention to give in to increasing demands from a few lawmakers to ban travelers from the worst-hit countries. “We can’t just cut ourselves off from West Africa, where this disease is raging,” Obama said. “Trying to seal off an entire region of the world—if that were even possible—could actually make the situation worse.” (For what it’s worth, experts largely agree with the president on this one.) The president also made it clear it is important to keep in mind that only a couple of people have been effected inside the United States: “What we're seeing now is not an ‘outbreak’ or an ‘epidemic’ of Ebola in America.”

As he projects an image of calm though, he is feeling “a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response,” according to the Times. The president let those feelings show on Wednesday, saying in a meeting that the response was “not tight.” Obama has reportedly put much of the blame on the C.D.C. for its constantly shifting information and failing to adequately train doctors and nurses.

Oct. 18 2014 2:07 PM

Evidence Doesn’t Support Civil Rights Charges Against Michael Brown’s Shooter

The federal investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri that took place two months ago and sparked a nationwide debate about the militarization of the police is continuing. But so far at least, there doesn’t appear to be enough evidence to file civil rights charges against the shooter, Officer Darren Wilson, who has told investigators he feared for his life while Brown pinned him in his vehicle during a struggle over his gun, reports the New York Times in the first public account of the officer’s testimony. Wilson’s gun was fired twice inside the car, and one of the bullets struck Brown in the arm while the other did not hit anyone.

Wilson’s September testimony contradicts some witnesses, but the forensics tests did show Brown’s blood was on the officer’s gun and on the interior side of the car door. Brown reportedly scratched and punched Wilson repeatedly during the scuffle, according to the officer’s testimony. His version of events could be crucial to the grand jury because Wilson’s “feeling of vulnerability and his sense of heightened alert” could help determine whether the officer was justified in using lethal force.

The testimony, however, fails to explain why Wilson pulled the trigger several times after the two were out of the car. Several witnesses have said the 18-year-old Brown was raising his arms in surrender when he was shot. Brown’s attorney also questions why Wilson would go after Brown if he was allegedly afraid for his life. “His actions contradict the presence of fear,” the attorney tells the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You’re fearful, a guy’s running, but you’re going to get out and chase him? How many people do you know chase something that you’re fearful of?” Although the attorney does not deny there may have been a scuffle, “no matter what happened in the car, Michael Brown ran away from him.”

Oct. 18 2014 1:01 PM

Supreme Court Allows Texas Law That Accepts Handgun Permits but not College IDs to Vote

A divided Supreme Court handed a big defeat to the Obama administration and numerous civil rights groups early Saturday morning when it ruled that Texas can enforce its 2011 voter ID law in November that some have called the strictest in the country. Three justices dissented from the ruling that rejected an emergency request that had been filed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups.

The decision appears to mark “the first time since 1982 that the Court has allowed a law restricting voters’ rights to be enforced after a federal court had ruled it to be unconstitutional,” notes Scotus Blog’s Lyle Denniston. A federal judge had struck down the law last week, saying that some 600,000 voters—mostly black or Latino—would face difficulties at the polls due to a lack of proper identification. The law, which was approved in 2011 but only came in effect in 2013 lays out seven approved forms of identification—a list many have questioned for including concealed handgun licenses but not college IDs, notes the Associated Press.

This marked the fourth time over the last few weeks that the Supreme Court has been forced to decide whether voter ID laws passed by Republican state legislatures can be used in November. The justices voted to allow changes in Ohio and North Carolina and stopped a new law in Wisconsin. “The common denominator in each seemed to be that it was too late in the election year to require the states to change the way they had planned to handle the elections,” notes the Washington Post. That was precisely the reasoning why a U.S. Court of appeals said the law could be used even though a district judge said it seemed to target minority voters.

The fact that the Texas ID law had been subject to a full trial on the ID requirements and a judge developed “an extensive record” on how the measure would block access to the polling stations made this case different from the others, according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented along with Justices Sonia Sotmayor and Elena Kagan. "The greatest threat to public confidence in elections in this case is the prospect of enforcing a purposefully discriminatory law, one that likely imposes an unconstitutional poll tax and risks denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters," Ginsburg wrote.

The president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund called the ruling “an affront to our democracy" as it “means hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in Texas will be unable to participate in November's election because Texas has erected an obstacle course designed to discourage voting.”

Oct. 17 2014 5:38 PM

A 30-Foot-Long Unmanned Spaceship Just Returned Successfully From Almost Two Years in Orbit

Did you know that the Air Force has a 30-foot-long craft that resembles a miniature space shuttle and can successfully fly into and out of orbit without a human aboard? Well, it does, and said spacecraft landed today at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base after 674 days in orbit. From the Guardian:

The X-37B program has been an orphan of sorts, bouncing since its inception in 1999 between several federal agencies, Nasa among them. It now resides under the air force’s rapid capabilities office.
The plane that landed Friday is one of two built by Boeing. This is the program’s third mission, and began in December 2012.
The plane stands 9.5ft tall and is just over 29ft long, with a wingspan under 15ft. It weighs 11,000lbs and has solar panels that unfurl to charge its batteries once in orbit.

Exactly what the X-37B was doing in orbit for 674 days is classified, though experts* speculate it was looking for Godzilla.


Oct. 17 2014 4:47 PM

Colorado Governor's Race May Determine Whether Inmate Lives or Dies

Today Mother Jones highlights an unusual dynamic at work in the closely contested race for Colorado's governorship: The state's vote is also a referendum on whether or not a specific individual should live or die. Last year, Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper granted a temporary stay of execution to Nathan Dunlap, who murdered four coworkers in Aurora, Colo. in 1993—but did not permanently commute Dunlap's sentence to life in prison, which means Republican challenger Bob Beauprez could carry out the execution if he's elected. Beauprez says he will do so, and has made Dunlap an issue in the campaign. Writes MoJo:

Hickenlooper, a once-popular mayor of Denver, is now running about even in the polls with Beauprez. And although it's unclear exactly how much Hickenlooper's death penalty stance plays into his struggles, a poll last year found that 67 percent of Coloradans disapproved of his decision in the Dunlap case.
"It was handled very clumsily," says Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University. "It was a very nuanced decision in his head, but it came off being very wishy-washy and weak."

Dunlap's attorneys argue that he does not deserve execution because he was abused physically and sexually as a child and was suffering a bipolar episode when he killed his coworkers. Colorado hasn't put an inmate to death since 1997, though prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Aurora mass shooter James Holmes.

Hickenlooper, should he lose the election, could still commute Dunlap's sentence before Beauprez took office.

Oct. 17 2014 2:50 PM

Man Who Killed Jordan Davis in “Loud Music” Case Sentenced to Life in Prison

Michael Dunn—the 47-year-old Florida man who killed teenager Jordan Davis in 2012 at a gas station after they argued over the volume of the music playing in Davis’ car—was sentenced to life in prison today in a Jacksonville court.

Dunn and Jordan Davis, 17, had argued at a Gate gas station on the day after Thanksgiving in 2012. Davis and his friends were playing loud rap music in a Dodge Durango. Dunn asked them to turn the music down. Davis cursed at Dunn.
Dunn shot Davis three times and continued firing seven more times as the SUV drove away.

Dunn claimed Davis had a gun, but none was ever recovered, and no witnesses reported seeing one. Davis’ parents did not want Dunn to be executed, and prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

Dunn was initially convicted only of second-degree murder when his jury could not reach a verdict on first-degree charges, but he was convicted of first-degree murder (for which he was sentenced today) at a retrial.

In February, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick wrote about Davis’ death and Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law.* The law’s controversy may have influenced some of the jurors who didn't vote to convict Dunn of first-degree murder in his first trial.

*Correction, Oct. 17, 2014: This post originally misspelled Dahlia Lithwick’s last name.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2014: This post's headline originally misstated Dunn's sentence—he is sentenced to life in prison, not the death penalty.

Oct. 17 2014 1:47 PM

Boko Haram Might Have Agreed to Return Abducted Girls

Nigeria's government says it has reached an agreement with the Boko Haram terrorist group to release the 200-plus girls abducted from a school in the town of Chibok earlier this year, though Boko Haram has not confirmed the news. From Reuters:

"I wish to inform this audience that a ceasefire agreement has been concluded," said the head of Nigeria's military, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, adding the deal had followed three days of talks with the militant sect.
Government spokesman Mike Omeri said the deal covered the release of the captives and Boko Haram had given assurances "that the schoolgirls and all other people in their captivity are all alive and well".

Reuters cautions that it's unclear exactly which Boko Haram representatives the government is negotiating with. Nigerian officials have rarely handled the group in a way that inspires confidence; at one point protests related to the abduction were banned, while the country's claim that it killed Boko Haram figurehead Abubukar Shekau in 2013 are disputed, not least because Shekau was also said to have been killed in 2009.

Oct. 17 2014 1:00 PM

Updates on Ebola Outbreak: Dallas Worker With Possible Specimen Contact Is On Cruise Ship

Slate will post running news updates about the ongoing Ebola story below. For other Slate coverage of Ebola, click here.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: President Obama has appointed Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff for both Joe Biden and Al Gore, as the administration's Ebola response coordinator, a.k.a. "Ebola czar." From the Washington Post

Klain, a longtime Democratic operative, served as Biden's chief of staff from 2009 to 2011 and as Gore's from 1995 to 1999. He helped oversee the Democratic side in the 2000 presidential election recount as its lead lawyer.

Since Klain left the White House in 2011 he's apparently been working for Case Holdings, which manages the "business and philanthropic interests" of America Online co-founder Steve Case.

Update, 11:45 a.m.: A Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas employee who "might have had contact with specimens of [Ebola]" is on a cruise ship somewhere near Belize, the New York Times reports per the State Department. The employee is said not to have direct interaction with any symptomatic patient, and neither the employee or his/her traveling partner are apparently showing any signs of infection. They've nonetheless agreed to remain isolated on the ship, and efforts to bring them back to the United States are underway.

The worker "may have processed samples of fluids from Mr. Duncan" 19 days ago, the State Department says, and left on the cruise on Oct. 12. That was the day that Nina Pham was diagnosed with Ebola, and before Amber Vinson was diagnosed. Yesterday, the Times writes, "health care workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital who are being monitored for Ebola symptoms were asked by Dallas County officials to voluntarily agree to avoid public places and not use public transportation, including commercial airliners and trains, during the 21-day incubation period of the virus."

Original post, 10:29 a.m.: An internal document prepared by the World Health Organization—the U.N.'s public health arm—is heavily critical of the agency's own response to the Ebola crisis, the Associated Press reports this morning. Says the self-critique: "Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall." From the AP:

The U.N. health agency acknowledged that, at times, even its own bureaucracy was a problem. It noted that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan.

Other cited issues:

  • WHO Ebola experts failing to send reports on the crisis to WHO headquarters
  • The WHO's Guinea chief refusing to help get visas for a response team
  • A debate between the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, carried out via social media, over whether the crisis was "out of control" (the WHO insisted it was not)

Almost 4,500 people have died of the disease in West Africa during the current outbreak. In a more positive development, the WHO announced today that none of the 74 people who came into contact with an Ebola patient in Senegal have developed the disease, and no other cases of the illness are reported in the country.

Oct. 16 2014 9:49 PM

Syracuse Univ. Tells Guest Photographer Who Covered Ebola Not to Come to Campus

You would have hoped for better from an institution of higher learning, but perhaps we should have known better. On Thursday, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michel du Cille was disinvited from a journalism workshop at Syracuse University because he has recently returned from covering the Ebola crisis in Liberia. The Washington Post photographer arrived back in the U.S. three weeks ago and has shown no symptoms of the virus, according to the National Press Photographers Association.

“Since his return from Liberia, Du Cille has been following CDC guidelines and monitoring himself closely for symptoms. He has been taking his temperature at least twice a day (but actually more like on the hour, every hour) for the past 21 days,” the NPPA reports. The decision by the university, and its highly-esteemed journalism program, looks all the more hysterical considering du Cille spent Thursday afternoon photographing CDC director Thomas Frieden on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, du Cille was at the CDC itself—working. In fact, here are some of the pictures he took for the Post.

Here’s more on just how ludicrous this decision makes Syracuse look:

Just yesterday, du Cille spent all day with Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, GA… Du Cille said he asked the CDC's Communications Director Tom Skinner on Tuesday in Atlanta what the CDC did with their scientists and workers when they return to Atlanta from working in Africa with Ebola patients. "He told me that the CDC has them monitor their temperature twice a day, watch for symptoms, and to be alert for 21 days. They don't ask them to stay away, they don't quarantine them, nothing like that. They said that if you're not going to show symptoms between Day 2 and Day 21, then you're not going to get Ebola.” At the CDC the Washington Post photojournalist also asked one of Dr. Frieden's physicians, Dr. John Brooks, about the possibility of whether or not he could still be an Ebola carrier if he's gone this long without showing any symptoms. The accepted incubation period for Ebola is 21 days. While du Cille had been around many bodies of people who died because of Ebola, he says he has no reason to believe that he had actually been exposed to the virus. "Dr. Brooks told me, and I quote, that since my 21 days are up it is very, very unlikely that anyone could get Ebola from me."

Du Cille’s Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Nikki Kahn, who is also a photojournalist and scheduled to attend, was also uninvited.