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Turkey's latest

And other news briefs

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

More than a week after a 7.2-magnitude quake struck eastern Turkey on Oct. 23, survivors waited through snow and rain to learn if their dwellings were safe to return to. Over 600 people died and more than 2,600 suffered injuries in the disaster, which took place in a quake-plagued region where the majority of buildings are not properly constructed to withstand damage: In the latest quake over 2,000 buildings and homes have been destroyed, leaving thousands without shelter.

Much of the damage took place in Ercis, but in nearby Van, one faith-based worker who lives in the region reported, "There are many people living in tents beside their homes because they are afraid to go inside to sleep. In the daytime they go in and out of the house to cook or go to the bathroom but they sleep in the tents." Besides humanitarian aid, the biggest current need, he said, is structural engineers.

Left and right converse

The religious left's Jim Wallis and the religious right's Richard Land disagree on major policy issues, but on Nov. 2 the two came together at the National Press Club to agree on one thing: The campaigning in next year's elections could set a new benchmark for negativity.

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Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, predicted it would be the "ugliest campaign since 1800." That is when, he said, New England Federalists buried their Bibles to hide them over fears that the new Thomas Jefferson administration would confiscate them.

"There is vitriol out there. Ugly vitriol," added Wallis, president of Sojourners.

The men held the event to model civil discourse over the often lightning-rod subject of evangelicals in politics one year ahead of next year's elections. For much of the night they talked about their agreements on clean energy, immigration reform, marriage, and foreign aid. Both argued that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith should not matter in the public square. But, as if to prove their dire prediction, the men could not hide their differences for long. Wallis blamed the nation's economic woes on Wall Street's "reckless, greedy, selfish behavior." Land countered that the "biggest problem is Washington" and its focus on wealth redistribution. The two managed to grin and bear basic disagreements, but as Land admitted, "Politicians in this country don't usually turn the other check."

Executive overreach

President Obama unveiled a plan to reduce federal student loan payments, one in a string of initiatives he will enact through executive order. Starting in January, the plan limits federal loan repayments to less than 10 percent of the borrower's monthly income every month, a measure that was supposed to take effect two years from now. The current cap is 15 percent. Only a small percentage of student borrowers participate in that program. The president's order also allows student loan forgiveness after 20 years, five years earlier than the current statute. Borrowers with more than one federal loan will be allowed to consolidate their debt, too, and the measures only apply to students who are currently taking out loans, a population that faces a bleak job market.

The plan could save low-income borrowers a couple hundred dollars a month, but the plan would save the average borrower between $4.50 and $7.75 a month, according to analysis by The Atlantic. At the same time, federal grants and loans for college education continue to increase: Average federal grant aid to colleges jumped 20 percent over the last school year, according to a new report from the College Board. A not surprising result of subsidizing college education: Tuition costs are also soaring. At four-year public colleges, tuition and fees went up by 8.3 percent in the past year, and private colleges went up 4.4 percent.

'Anyone's guess'

The Supreme Court declined to hear a case on religious landmarks, upholding a lower court's ruling that bans crosses placed along Utah highways to commemorate state troopers killed in the line of duty. The court's decision compounds the confusion over the jurisprudence on religious landmarks: Last term, the high court ruled constitutional the Mojave cross, a memorial on public land for the war dead of World War I. Most of the 14 Utah crosses also stand on public land, while private funds paid for the memorials. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in the final ruling on the case, said the crosses "convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity."

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the sole dissent of the decision not to take up the case, harshly criticizing the court and saying the constitutionality of religious displays is "anyone's guess." The case was "an opportunity to provide clarity to an establishment-clause jurisprudence in shambles." The same group that sued over the Utah crosses, American Atheists, also sued for the removal of the steel cross at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero-a case that is ongoing.

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