Just ahead of the start of the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring employer-based health benefits to cover contraceptives goes into effect in 2013, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has put a hold on the controversial measure as it applies to religious nonprofits. Only days after hearing Wheaton College and Belmont Abbey College’s cases against the mandate, the court issued an order Dec. 18 saying the cases weren’t ready to be decided. The court did not dismiss the cases, but is instead holding them in “abeyance.” The appeals court ordered the federal government to issue final changes to the mandate, as it has been promising to do for the last year.
The mandate goes into effect for religious nonprofit organizations in 2013, and the government has promised it would publish an amended mandate in the “first quarter of 2013.” The mandate as it stands would require most religious groups to cover contraceptives, including abortifacients, for their employees.
“There will, the government said, be a different rule for entities like the appellants, and we take that as a binding commitment,” the court wrote.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is arguing the cases on behalf of the two colleges, declared the court order a “major victory,” saying it meant that the government could not enforce the mandate as written against religious institutions like Wheaton and Belmont Abbey.
President Barack Obama announced Dec. 19 the formation of a task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden to address gun violence in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. (see "A town clothed in misery" in this issue). The president called the shooting “a wake-up call for all of us” and asked Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban, a law passed during the Clinton administration that expired in 2004. Already members of Congress, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had vowed to introduce legislation for an assault weapons ban when Congress convenes on Jan. 3. The National Rifle Association in its first comments since the shooting promised Dec. 18 to offer “meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”
Human-rights groups questioned the ability of the International Criminal Court to mete out justice after it acquitted a Congolese rebel leader of war crimes Dec. 18. Prosecutors accused Mathieu Ngudjolo of overseeing the 2003 pillaging of a village in eastern Congo, where rebel militants with machetes reportedly raped women and hacked to death or burned alive around 200 people, including children. The court said unreliable testimony from three key witnesses undermined a foolproof case linking Ngudjolo to the crimes—although presiding judge Bruno Cotte emphasized the acquittal “does not necessarily mean that the alleged fact did not occur.”
The acquittal is only the second verdict the international court has delivered since its establishment in 2002. (The first, a conviction last March, sentenced Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in prison for recruiting child soldiers.) Critics complain the court is slow, expensive, and has focused exclusively on African crimes. Doctors Without Borders says fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo has displaced 800,000 people.
In what is now becoming a regular routine, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke on Dec. 12 announced another round of quantitative easing to try to jump-start the economy and help the labor market.
In a departure from the past, Bernanke set a specific target for the unemployment rate: He said the Fed would keep the federal funds rate near zero until the unemployment rate hit 6.5 percent. At that point, or if inflation rose to 2.5 percent, the Fed would consider raising the rate. In the most recent round of easing on Sept. 13, Bernanke had said that he wanted to bring down the unemployment rate but that he didn’t have “a specific number in mind.” Bernanke says the Fed would continue to purchase $45 billion of Treasury bonds and $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities per month indefinitely.
Eleven members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee voted for the policy. As with QE3 in September, Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker was the only vote against the new policy, saying it risked higher inflation. If the move was meant to impress the stock markets, it failed. The Dow and the Nasdaq both fell slightly on Dec. 12.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley named Rep. Tim Scott to replace outgoing Sen. Jim DeMint, the Tea Party favorite who is leaving to head the Heritage Foundation in January. Scott will become the only African-American in the Senate and the first from the South since Reconstruction.
A wide range of conservative groups lauded Haley’s decision to pick Scott, who has a strong conservative voting record (see “There to serve,” Oct. 20, 2012). Voters elected Scott in 2010 along with Allen West, R-Fla., giving the House its first two African-American Republicans since 2003. (West was defeated in the 2012 elections.)
DeMint called Scott’s selection a “great choice” and said his successor will be able to carry the torch of conservatism in ways he couldn’t. Scott intends to run for the remainder of DeMint’s term in a 2014 special election.
His arrival won’t change the ideological makeup of the Senate, where Democrats will have in January a 53-45 majority (with two independents caucusing with Democrats).
Infant mortality worldwide declined by more than half from 1990 to 2010, according to a report published Dec. 13 in The Lancet, with sharp drops in deadly diseases like measles and tuberculosis as well as chronic malnutrition. More people are living longer, the “Global Burden of Disease Study” said—with 43 percent of deaths in the world occurring at age 70 and older in 2010 compared with 33 percent of deaths at that age bracket in 1990. That means the number of deaths due to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease—ailments associated with older age and more developed countries—is up.