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Blowing smoke

And other news briefs

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers responded to a fire on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 2 by calling for an expansion of the Obama administration's ban on deepwater drilling. "We cannot afford to lose any more human lives, nor can we tolerate further damage to the Gulf," said Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana. Two problems with that statement: The fire didn't kill or seriously injure anyone, and it didn't cause an oil spill in Gulf waters.

Similarities between the September platform fire and the oil rig explosion in April that killed 11 workers and led to one of the largest oil spills in history were scant: The Mariner Energy fire happened on an oil platform that is located in shallow water and doesn't facilitate drilling. Bruce Bullock of the Maguire Energy Institute said the fire was one of over 100 fires that happen in the Gulf each year: "This could have happened in a meat factory or a paint factory or anywhere else." The ban on deepwater drilling is set to expire on Nov. 30, though oil industry blue-collar workers on the Gulf Coast have pleaded with the government to end the ban sooner.

Silver lining

Can a public university's student fees support worship? The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said yes, ruling Sept. 1 that the University of Wisconsin was wrong to deny student funds to the student group Badger Catholic because its activities include worship, spiritual counseling, and proselytizing. Religious discussion, not worship, is allowed under the school's policy, but the court said that distinction was meaningless because worship could have many iterations in a given religion. The circuit court said it was reinforcing the Supreme Court ruling in June in Christian Legal Society (CLS) v. Martinez, which allowed a public law school to require religious groups to accept any member, religious or not. But the high court said the school must give recognition and funding for those groups, without regard to viewpoints. In the circuit court's opinion, Judge Frank Easterbrook emphasized that part of the Supreme Court ruling. He argued that in light of the CLS decision, the University of Wisconsin must fund the Catholic group, "if similar programs that espouse a secular perspective are reimbursed."

Medicaid records

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More than 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, the low-income federal-state health program, according to a survey of state data by USA TODAY. That's a 17 percent increase in enrollees since the recession began in December 2007 and the highest on record-and before Medicaid adds to its rolls an estimated 16 million who will qualify under the new healthcare law in 2014.

Pakistan

Younis Masih spent a recent afternoon surveying the flood-wracked ruins of the modest home he spent nearly 25 years building in Peshawar, Pakistan. His reaction: "God gave me this house and He took it from me. I do not blame God." Masih is among thousands of Christians suffering alongside millions of other Pakistanis left homeless by monsoon floods that began in late July. But his struggle is especially difficult: Christian aid groups report that religious minorities are facing discrimination, with some aid stations denying them food, water, shelter, and other basic supplies.

Nazir Bhatti of the Pakistan Christian Congress condemned the discrimination and called on Pakistan's government to send funds to groups helping religious minorities. Groups like the U.K.-based Barnabas Fund are helping funnel aid to churches and other Christian groups in Pakistan to help the minority population. Back at his ruined home in Peshawar, Masih remains hopeful: "God took everything away from Job, but later He blessed him as well. I trust God to bless me again."

Rape capital of the world

Just 20 miles from a UN peacekeeping base in the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, armed men seized the town of Luvungi for four days in August, beating and raping at least 240 women and children. The nearby force of UN peacekeepers said they didn't learn of the attacks until after the rebels left. The UN Security Council said the troops should have done more to protect locals from the Rwandan FDLR rebels suspected of the brutal attacks. Ongoing violence by warring militias has plagued the central African nation that one UN envoy called "the rape capital of the world." The UN is set to release a report on Oct. 1 that will likely accuse the Rwandan army of possible genocide in the Congo during the 1990s after genocidal fighting in Rwanda spilled over into neighboring Congo.

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