Mormons repeal ban on baptisms for children of LGBT parents

SALT LAKE CITY – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday repealed rules unveiled in 2015 that banned baptisms for children of LGBT parents and made same-sex marriage a sin worthy of expulsion.

The surprise announcement by the faith widely known as the Mormon Church reverses rules that triggered widespread condemnations from LGBT members and their allies and marked a jarring shift from the church’s push to carve out a more compassionate stance on LGBT issues.

The rules banned baptisms for children living with LGBT parents until they turn 18, disavowed same-sex relationships and received approval from global church leaders.

With the change, children of LGBT parents can now be baptized as long as their parents approve the baptisms and acknowledge that the children will be taught church doctrine, the church said in a statement from its highest leadership group called the First Presidency.

The faith said in a statement that it is not changing its doctrinal opposition to same-sex marriage and still considers same-sex relationships to be a “serious transgression.”

But people in same-sex relationships will no longer be considered “apostates” who must be kicked out of the church, the statement said.

“The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” the leaders said in the statement. “In addition, our members’ efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill.”

The change marks the biggest move yet by church President Russell M. Nelson, who has made a flurry of changes to how the church functions since taking over the faith in January 2018.

Troy Williams with the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah called the announcement a big step forward.

“Clearly this is a great development for the church,” he said. “I think this will go a long way toward healing Latter-day Saint families that have LGBT members.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

PRC spy indicted in Taiwan

TAIPEI – A convicted Communist Chinese spy was indicted by Taipei prosecutors Wednesday on another charge of violating national security laws in collusion with members of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROCOT)’s opposition New Party.

The indictment was handed down after the ROCOT’s Supreme Court upheld a high court ruling March 14 that sentenced Zhou Hongxu to 14 months in prison after he attempted to bribe an employee of the ROCOT’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs into spying for the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Zhou, who graduated from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in 2016, was indicted for trying to develop an espionage ring in the ROCOT through a news website and an association set up by New Party spokesman Wang Ping-chung and two other members of the party’s youth committee.

The three New Party members were indicted by Taipei prosecutors in June last year for spying for the Communist Chinese government, in violation of the National Security Act.

As for Zhou’s part in the case, the Taipei District Prosecutors Office decided to send his case to the Taiwan High Court to handle the two cases together.

However, the High Court returned the case to the prosecutors office on the grounds that the recruitment of the Taiwanese diplomat was unrelated to the case involving the three New Party members.

Dissatisfied with the High Court decision, the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The appeal was rejected Wednesday and the case was returned to the Taipei District Prosecutors Office, which decided that day to indict Zhou.

The indictment follows the People’s Republic of China’s recent violation of the Republic of China on Taiwan’s ambiguously sovereign territory, stressing Cross-Strait relations.

President Trump signs memorandum to stem counterfeit goods trafficking

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed a presidential memorandum on Wednesday to rein in what the administration calls the “Wild West” of online trafficking in counterfeit goods.

The memorandum is aimed at stopping the sale of counterfeit products on sites like Amazon, eBay and the People’s Republic of China’s e-commerce leader, Alibaba.

“This president has decided that it’s time to clean up this Wild West of counterfeiting and trafficking,” said Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council.

“The central core of the problem is that right now, third-party online marketplaces … have zero liability when it comes to trafficking in these counterfeit goods. That simply has to stop. We are going to attack that on numerous fronts.”

In a statement released on Wednesday, Amazon said that it “strictly prohibits” the sale of counterfeit products and welcomes more coordinated support from law enforcement to stem the problem. Amazon said that last year it spent more than $400 million fighting counterfeits, fraud and other forms of abuse.

“We have built industry-leading tools like Brand Registry, Transparency and our newly launched Project Zero to protect our customers and help rights owners drive counterfeits to zero,” the company said. “With these and other tools, we ensure that over 99% of the products that customers view on Amazon never receive a complaint about counterfeits.”

Navarro said discussion of possible actions the administration will take to deter online trafficking in counterfeit merchandise is premature. He says the directive orders the Department of Homeland Security to work with other agencies on a report identifying the scope of the problem. The report also is to identify the origin of the fake goods and recommend administrative, regulatory, legislative or policy changes to stem the problem.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the value of trade in counterfeit and pirated goods is about a half trillion dollars a year, with roughly 20% infringing on U.S. intellectual property, according to the directive.

The U.S. is engaged in a trade dispute with the People’s Republic of China after the Trump administration made several complaints, including that the PRC was stealing U.S. trade secrets and forcing companies to give them technology to access its market. Trump imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Communist Chinese imports, about half what the United States buys from that country. China retaliated with tariffs on about $110 billion of U.S. items. Trade talks are ongoing.

Navarro told reporters in a conference call, however, that the new memorandum has nothing to do with the U.S.-PRC trade talks or Trump’s criticism of Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos. Trump has accused Amazon of not paying its fair share of taxes, harming the U.S. Postal Service and putting brick-and-mortar stores out of business.

A recent Government Accountability Office report examined four categories of frequently counterfeited goods, and, based on a small sample of these goods purchased through various online third-party marketplaces, investigators found that more than 40% were counterfeit, Navarro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Newly elected Chicago mayor: Victory means ‘a city reborn’

CHICAGO – Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot’s resounding victory was a clear call for change at City Hall and a historic repudiation of the old-style, insider politics that have long defined the nation’s third-largest city.

Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who’d never been elected to public office, defeated Cook County Board President and longtime City Council member Toni Preckwinkle on Tuesday with backing from voters across the city. Late results showed Lightfoot, 56, winning every one of the city’s 50 wards.

Lightfoot also made history, becoming the first African American woman and the first openly lesbian person to be elected Chicago mayor. Chicago will become the largest U.S. city to have an African American woman serve as mayor when Lightfoot is sworn in May 20. She will join seven other African American women currently serving as mayors in major U.S. cities, including Atlanta and New Orleans, and will be the second woman to lead Chicago.

“Out there tonight a lot of little girls and boys are watching. They’re watching us, and they’re seeing the beginning of something, well, a little bit different,” Lightfoot told a jubilant crowd at a downtown hotel. “They’re seeing a city reborn.”

She pledged to make Chicago “a place where your zip code doesn’t determine your destiny,” to address the city’s violence and to “break this city’s endless cycle of corruption” that allows politicians to profit from their office.

Lightfoot emerged as the surprising leader in the first round of voting in February when 14 candidates were on the ballot to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who decided against running for a third term.

She seized on outrage over a white police officer’s fatal shooting of African American teenager Laquan McDonald to launch her reformer campaign. She got in the race even before Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek re-election amid criticism for initially resisting calls to release video of the shooting.

Joyce Ross, 64, a resident of the city’s predominantly black or African American West Side who is a certified nursing assistant, cast her ballot Tuesday for Lightfoot. Ross said she believes Lightfoot will be better able to clean up the police department and curb the city’s violence.

She was also bothered by Preckwinkle’s association with longtime Alderman Ed Burke, who was indicted earlier this year on charges he tried to shake down a restaurant owner who wanted to build in his ward.

“My momma always said birds of a feather flock together,” Ross said.

Preckwinkle said she called Lightfoot Tuesday night to congratulate her on a “hard-fought campaign.”

“While I may be disappointed I’m not disheartened. For one thing, this is clearly a historic night,” she told a crowd gathered in her South Side neighborhood. “Not long ago two African American women vying for this position would have been unthinkable. And while it may be true that we took two very different paths to get here, tonight is about the path forward.”

That path will have major challenges. Chicago has been losing population, particularly in predominantly African American neighborhoods hit hardest by violence and a lack of jobs.

The new mayor will take over a city that faces massive financial problems. She will have just a few months to prepare a new budget, which in 2020 is expected to have a roughly $250 million deficit. Lightfoot also will take over the worst-funded public pensions of any major U.S. city. Chicago’s annual payments to the retirement systems are slated to grow by $1.2 billion by 2023.

She has expressed support for a casino in Chicago and changing the state’s income tax system to a graduated tax, in which higher earners are taxed at a higher rate—two measures lawmakers have tried for unsuccessfully for years to pass.

Violence and policing will also continue to be an issue, and one that has proven to be politically difficult.

The Chicago Police Department must implement a federally monitored consent decree approved in January. It followed the McDonald killing and a U.S. Justice Department review that found a long history of excessive use of force and racial bias by officers.

While voters also elected several newcomers over City Council veterans, Lightfoot will have to work with a council that has a sizable number of members who are the type of politicians she railed against during her campaign.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Former New York teacher threatens lawsuit against school

NEW YORK CITY – A former New York middle school teacher has threatened to sue a school district in New York State, saying it was because of a topless photo of herself had gone public.

“My career has been ruined, my reputation has been tarnished,” said 25-year-old teacher Lauren Miranda. “I have been stigmatized.”

Attorney John Ray said South Country School District fired his client from her job teaching mathematics at Bellport Middle School on Long Island last week because the superintendent said Miranda wasn’t a good role model after a photo of her exposed chest was leaked to a student. Since January, Miranda has been on leave from teaching with pay.

“That picture was never posted,” Miranda said. “How it got out is the million-dollar question.”

Miranda said she plans to file a $3 million claim against the district, accusing the school system of treating her unfairly because she’s a woman, local sources in New York have reported.

“I am a teacher who is being penalized for being a woman,” Miranda said. “My future has been condemned because I am a female, with female breasts, seen in a mild selfie.”

Miranda’s attorney said his client will drop her planned lawsuit if she’s reinstated at the school, but he said the district told Miranda that’s not going to happen.

The district has stayed quiet on the issue.

“The district does not comment on active litigation,” the superintendent said in a statement.

Ray said the district held a meeting about the selfie in which they called Miranda in and questioned her, as the leaked picture was “displayed in full color, with all the men in the room sitting there,” local sources report.

“What is wrong with my image?” Miranda asked at the press conference Monday, according to ABC News local NYC station, WABC. “It’s my breasts. It’s my chest. It’s my body. It’s something that should be celebrated.”

Censored topless picture of Lauren
Lauren Miranda’s topless selfie, censored

It’s also a double standard, her attorney said.

“Anytime a man has ever exposed his chest, no one has ever commented or had any problem with it whatsoever,” Ray said, according to WABC. “But when a woman displays her chest, as happened here, she gets fired from her job.”

According to legal documents, it is legal in New York for women to go topless in public.

Miranda is considering teaching roles in other districts, local sources report.

Performance evaluations on Miranda, who was to be considered for tenure in June, described her as an “outstanding math instructor, knowledgeable of her content area, but most of all genuinely dedicated to the academic progress of all of her students.”

Miranda said one reason she’s fighting the dismissal is to send a message to female students.

“What message is that saying to the girls who have their photos airdropped all over the high school and sent all over?” Miranda said, according to WABC. “What message are we sending to them? To roll over when your picture gets exposed without your permission or consent? So how am I now not being a role model to them?”

Some parents said the school district made the right choice.

“Whether her intentions were for the picture to get out or not, it happened—and now you have to be responsible for your actions,” said parent Randy Miller.

Miranda said she doesn’t regret snapping the picture and sending it to her then-boyfriend.

“I’m proud of my body,” she said, according to local reports.

US finds “severe” problems in Alabama prisons

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The U.S. Justice Department has determined that Alabama’s prisons are violating the U.S. Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse and by housing them in unsafe and overcrowded facilities, according to a scathing report Wednesday that described the problems as “severe” and “systemic.”

The Federal Government also is putting the state on notice that it may sue if officials there don’t make improvements soon.

“Our investigation found reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who leads the department’s civil rights division. “The Justice Department hopes to work with Alabama to resolve the Department’s concerns.”

The report detailed a litany of problems in the state’s 13 prisons for men, which together house roughly 16,000 inmates. Those include an overcrowding rate that the Justice Department says ranks among the highest in the nation and a “crisis level” staffing shortage.

In a single week in September 2017, the report found, two inmates stood guard at the doors of a dormitory in one facility while two others repeatedly stabbed a prisoner who eventually bled to death; an inmate at another facility was stabbed and had to be evacuated by helicopters; and a prisoner in a dorm reserved for inmates with good behavior was woken from sleep when two inmates attacked him with a sock filled with metal locks.

The report is only the latest blow to the troubled Alabama prison system, which has come under criticism for violence, overcrowding and a high suicide rate. A federal judge in 2017 ruled that the state has provided “horrendously inadequate” care to mentally ill inmates.

The findings are the result of an investigation opened in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration, which was aggressive in launching wide-ranging investigations into troubled police departments and corrections systems. In a number of cases, those probes led to agreements to make changes under federal oversight. The Trump administration, in contrast, has taken a more hands-off approach.

Before he left office last year, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime Alabama senator, released a memo limiting the use of consent decrees struck between the Federal Government and local agencies under investigation.

Alabama has been trying to address crowding through sentencing reform, but the threat of a federal lawsuit will force the state to address other issues such as sexual assaults in prisons, said Republican state Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs a legislative prison oversight committee.

“We don’t have much of a choice. Something has got to happen,” Ward said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

US investigates seizure risk with electronic cigarettes

WASHINGTON – U.S. health officials are investigating whether electronic cigarettes may trigger seizures in some people who use the nicotine-vaping devices.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said Wednesday it has reviewed 35 reports of seizures among e-cigarettes users, mainly in young people. Regulators stressed it’s not yet clear whether vaping is responsible. But they said they’re concerned and encouraged the public to report information about the issue.

These cases warrant “investigation into whether there is in fact a connection,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. Gottlieb is stepping down on Friday after nearly two years heading the agency.

Cases go back to 2010 and were reported to the FDA or poison control centers around the country. Regulators said they detected an uptick in reports beginning mid-2018. While they represent a tiny fraction of Americans who have used e-cigarettes, many safety issues with foods, supplements and other consumer products can go unrecognized because reporting is voluntary.

Most e-cigarettes heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable vapor. The battery-powered devices have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry though there are few standards, including how much nicotine they deliver. Additionally, many refillable e-cigarettes can be used with nicotine formulas of varying strength.

Nicotine poisoning can cause seizures, convulsions, vomiting and brain injury. The FDA has previously warned of potentially fatal nicotine poisoning in infants and children who accidentally swallowed nicotine solutions.

Seizures usually last a few seconds or minutes and rarely cause permanent injury. But they can be a sign of underlying neurological disorders that need medical attention.

The agency said the handful of seizure reports often lack information about the brand of e-cigarette or whether users had a medical condition that might have contributed. In some cases, e-cigarettes were being used with drugs like marijuana and amphetamines. Some seizures were reported after just a few puffs of the device, others after a day of use.

The FDA is asking consumers to report problems to an online site. The agency is seeking details about vaping brands and models and whether users who have experienced problems were also taking medications, supplements or other drugs.

It’s not the first time the FDA has flagged a potential health hazard with vaping devices—the agency has warned of rare burns and explosions related to overheating of batteries that power the devices.

The latest concern comes amid a nationwide push to fight underage use of e-cigarettes, which have surged in popularity among high school and middle school students. Last month the FDA outlined new restrictions on retail and online sales of most flavored e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, local and state officials are considering age restrictions, taxes and flavor bans to keep the products away from teenagers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.