Court struggles with companies’ religious objections to law’s birth control coverage

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Seemingly divided, the Supreme Court struggled Tuesday with the question of whether companies have religious rights, a case challenging President Barack Obama’s health overhaul and its guarantee of birth control in employees’ preventive care plans.

Peppering attorneys with questions in a 90-minute argument, the justices weighed the rights of for-profit companies against the rights of female employees. The discussion ranged to abortion, too, and even whether a female worker could be forced to wear an all-covering burka.

The outcome could turn on the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote, as his colleagues appeared otherwise to divide along liberal and conservative lines.

As the court heard the challenge brought by the Hobby Lobby chain of stores and others, demonstrators on both sides of the issue chanted outside in an early spring snow.

The justices upheld the overall health care law two years ago in a 5-4 ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote in favor of Obama’s signature domestic legislation. The latest case focuses on a sliver of the law dealing with preventive services, including contraception, that must be offered in a company’s plan at no extra charge.


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Satellite clue ends wild theories over fate of MH370, but puzzle is far from resolved

Over an extraordinary 17 days and nights, until the moment Malaysia’s prime minister stepped to a lectern to deliver investigators’ sobering new findings, the fate of vanished Flight 370 hung on morbid conjecture and fragile hope.

Many previous tragedies have transfixed us by revealing their power in cruel detail. But the disappearance of the Beijing-bound Boeing 777 without warning or explanation captivated imaginations around the world in no small part because of the near vacuum of firm information or solid leads.

Nothing solid, that is, until late Monday night, when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that an analysis of the plane’s last-known signals to a satellite showed that it went down somewhere in the desolate waters of the southern Indian Ocean -- and that all on board perished.

It was a turning point of sorts in one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern times. Najib’s statement offered some resolution -- the plane has surely crashed -- but little else. No one has found the plane, or the passengers, or the answer to why all this happened in the first place. And solving those riddles involves a search that looms dauntingly across a vast expanse of unforgiving ocean at the bottom of the earth.

The puzzle of Flight 370 has been complicated by a frustrating lack of hard facts since it vanished on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Who could say what might have happened in the cockpit or the cabin -- or who or what was responsible? Who knew where the plane had gone -- up or down, north or south -- or what had become of its 239 passengers and crew?

Relatives of Flight 370 victims protest in Beijing; weather delays search for debris

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Frustration over the fate of Flight 370 mounted Tuesday, with gale-force winds delaying the search in the rough and remote seas off western Australia, and angry relatives shouting "Liars!" in the streets of Beijing about Malaysia’s declaration that the plane went down with all aboard.

The bad weather forced a daylong delay by search planes combing a vast expanse of the southern Indian Ocean for any pieces of the Malaysia Airlines jet -- tangible evidence for the families seeking closure after more than two weeks of anguished uncertainty.

Although officials sharply narrowed the search zone based on the last satellite signals received from the Boeing 777, it was still estimated at 1.6 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles), an area bigger than Texas and Oklahoma combined.

"We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack -- we’re still trying to define where the haystack is," Australia’s deputy defense chief, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, told reporters at a military base in Perth as idle planes stood behind him.

The weather was expected to be better Wednesday for the airborne hunt to resume in the area 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth.

Ukraine’s defense chief resigns as busloads of troops withdraw from Crimea

FEODOSIA, Crimea (AP) -- As former comrades saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces, Ukrainian marines in Crimea piled into buses Tuesday to head back to the mainland.

It was a low-key exit from this eastern Black Sea port, with fewer than a dozen friends and relatives on hand to bid the marines farewell. A troop transporter bearing black Russian military plates trailed the bus as it pulled away.

Their departure came as Ukraine’s defense minister stepped down after harsh criticism for authorities’ often-hesitant reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was formalized following a hastily organized referendum this month. And while Ukraine struggled to deal with its humbling by Russia, it also faced the menace of seething Ukrainian nationalists angered by the police killing of a leading radical.

Troops were given the stark choice of either staying in Crimea and switching allegiance to serve under Russia’s military, or leaving the peninsula to keep their jobs with the Ukrainian defense forces.

"The Russians threatened, intimidated, bullied and tried to get us to switch sides to Russia. It has been very difficult to resist this enormous pressure but I have made a choice that I can live with," Senior Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoy told The Associated Press after arriving in the Ukrainian city of Genichesk .

Russian rocket with
3-man crew blasts off for Space Station

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) -- A rocket carrying a Russian-American crew to the International Space Station has blasted off successfully from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz booster rocket lifted off as scheduled at 3:17 a.m local time Wednesday (2117 GMT Tuesday), lighting up the night skies over the steppe with a giant fiery tail. It entered a designated orbit in about 10 minutes after the launch. All onboard systems were working flawlessly, and the crew was feeling fine.

So far, there have been no signs that the tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine could affect the space program.

The crew -- NASA astronaut Steve Swanson and Russians Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev -- are set to dock the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft at the station less than six hours after the launch and are scheduled to stay in orbit for six months.

Swanson is a veteran of two U.S. space shuttle missions, and Skvortsov spent six months on the space outpost in 2010. Artemyev is on his first flight to space.

Speed, not mechanical problems caused actor Paul Walker’s crash

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Porsche carrying "Fast & Furious" star Paul Walker was traveling about 90 mph when it went out of control on a suburban street and crashed, killing the actor and his friend, according to an investigation by law enforcement agencies into the November accident.

The sports car driven by Roger Rodas slammed into a light pole that had a 45 mph speed limit sign, and it burst into flames. Walker and Rodas died at the scene.

Investigators concluded that unsafe driving, not mechanical problems, caused the crash, according to a person who has reviewed a report by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol. Investigators calculated that Rodas was driving between 81 mph and 94 mph when his 2005 Porsche Carrera GT began to drift after coming out of a curve.

"The vehicle had no mechanical failure and the damage that occurred to the vehicle was from the collision," accident reconstruction specialists with the Highway Patrol wrote, according to the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been officially released yet.

A spokeswoman said Tuesday that the Sheriff’s Department had no new information to release regarding the investigation into the Nov. 30 crash.