Court: Christian prayers to open council meetings don’t violate the Constitution

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings on Monday, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.

The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in a 5-4 decision backed by its conservative majority.

Though the decision split the court along ideological lines, the Obama administration backed the winning side, the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester.

The outcome relied heavily on a 1983 decision in which the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska Legislature and said prayer is part of the nation’s fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

Writing for the court on Monday, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

Worse than Ukraine sanctions? U.S. is planning to unleash IRS on Russian banks

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the United States attempts to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the Treasury Department is deploying an economic weapon that could prove more costly than sanctions: the Internal Revenue Service.

This summer, the U.S. plans to start using a new law that will make it more expensive for Russian banks to do business in America.

"It’s a huge deal," says Mark E. Matthews, a former IRS deputy commissioner. "It would throw enormous uncertainty into the Russian banking community."

Long before the Ukraine crisis, Congress approved the law in 2010 to curb tax evasion that relies on overseas accounts. Now, beginning in July, U.S. banks will be required to start withholding a 30 percent tax on certain payments to financial institutions in other countries -- unless those foreign banks have agreements in place to share information about U.S. account holders with the IRS. The withholding applies mainly to investment income.

Russia and dozens of other countries have been negotiating information-sharing agreements with the U.S. in an effort to spare their banks from such harsh penalties.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine kills 12; Kiev sends elite force to try to halt violence

ODESSA, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukraine sent an elite national guard unit to its southern port of Odessa, desperate to halt a spread of the fighting between government troops and a pro-Russia militia in the east that killed combatants on both sides Monday.

The government in Kiev intensified its attempts to bring both regions back under its control, but seemed particularly alarmed by the bloodshed in Odessa. It had been largely peaceful until Friday, when clashes killed 46 people, many of them in a government building that was set on fire.

The tensions in Ukraine also raised concerns in neighboring Moldova, another former Soviet republic, where the government said late Monday it had put its borders on alert. Moldova’s breakaway Trans-Dniester region, located just northwest of Odessa and home to 1,500 Russian troops, is supported by Moscow, and many of its residents sympathize with the pro-Russia insurgency.

The loss of Odessa -- in addition to a swath of industrial eastern Ukraine -- would be catastrophic for the interim government in Kiev, leaving the country cut off from the Black Sea. Ukraine already lost a significant part of its coastline in March, when its Crimean Peninsula was annexed by Russia.

Compared with eastern Ukraine, Odessa is a wealthy city with an educated and ethnically diverse population of more than 1 million. Jews still make up 12 percent of the population of the city, which once had a large Jewish community.

Boko Haram leader threatens to sell girls it kidnapped in Nigeria

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigeria’s Islamic extremist leader is threatening to sell the nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls abducted from a school in the remote northeast three weeks ago, in a new videotape received Monday.

Abubakar Shekau for the first time also claimed responsibility for the April 15 mass abduction, warning that his group plans to attack more schools and abduct more girls.

"I abducted your girls," said the leader of Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful."

He described the girls as "slaves" and said, "By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace." The hourlong video starts with fighters lifting automatic rifles and shooting in the air as they chant "Allahu akbar!" or "God is great."

It was unclear if the video was made before or after reports emerged last week that some of the girls have been forced to marry their abductors -- who paid a nominal bride price of $12 -- and that others have been carried into neighboring Cameroon and Chad. Those reports could not be verified.

Snapped clip suspected in circus hair-hanging stunt gone wrong; 2 critically hurt

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Investigators suspect that a snapped clip sent eight aerial acrobats plummeting 20 feet or more during a daring performance, an experience one injured performer likened to a "plunge into darkness."

The clip, a common type called a carabiner that’s used for everything from rock climbing to holding keyrings, was one of several pieces at the top of a chandelier-like apparatus that suspended the performers, fire officials said. After the accident, the 4- to 5-inch steel clip was found in three pieces on the ground with its spine snapped.

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare stopped short of saying the carabiner caused Sunday’s accident at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus, witnessed by about 3,900 people, many of them children. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is trying to make a final determination.

"We don’t know if it was metal fatigue, if it wasn’t properly positioned or something else," Pare said. "We just don’t know."

Two of the acrobats were in critical condition Monday and all eight were still hospitalized with injuries including a pierced liver and neck and back fractures, as well as head injuries. None of the injuries appear to be life-threatening, said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company.

Acrobatic ‘hair hanging’ is painful circus art practiced by very few, who protect its secrets

NEW YORK (AP) -- "Hair hanging" is an incredibly painful, highly specialized aerial performance in the circus world, confined to certain families who pass their secrets about the tradition down through generations of performers.

Eight circus acrobats plummeted to the ground during such a performance at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus Sunday in Rhode Island when the apparatus they were hanging from fell. Experts say the rare performance art -- in which acrobats literally hang from the scalp as they fly through the air and perform various tricks -- is practiced by fewer than a dozen circus families around the world, though it has existed for more than a century.

"It’s a very unique, traditional circus act. And most circus schools that I’m aware of don’t teach it," said Elsie Smith, the artistic director at the New England Center for Circus Arts.

Each acrobat’s hair is wrapped around a steel cable ring attached to rigging that hoists the performer upward. And therein lies the secret: The specific technique used to secure the hair to the rigging is closely guarded.

"We all keep it to ourselves how we tie our hair and how we do it," said Christopher Williams, a 24-year-old hair hanger who counts some of the injured performers among his friends. "No one really knows the secret."

Fracking boom exacts little-known price: higher fatalities on some US roads

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) -- Booming production of oil and natural gas has exacted a little-known price on some of the nation’s roads, contributing to a spike in traffic fatalities in states where many streets and highways are choked with large trucks and heavy drilling equipment.

An Associated Press analysis of traffic deaths and U.S. census data in six drilling states shows that in some places, fatalities have more than quadrupled since 2004 -- a period when most American roads have become much safer even as the population has grown.

"We are just so swamped," said Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, Texas, where authorities have been overwhelmed by the surge in serious accidents.

The industry acknowledges the problem, and traffic agencies and oil companies say they are taking steps to improve safety. But no one imagines that the risks will be eliminated quickly or easily.

"I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon," Villanueva said.

Target’s CEO loses his job in fallout from security breach; ‘A new era’ for top execs

NEW YORK (AP) -- Target’s CEO has become the first boss of a major corporation to lose his job over a breach of customer data, showing how responsibility for computer security now reaches right to the top.

Gregg Steinhafel, who was also president and chairman, stepped down nearly five months after Target disclosed a huge pre-Christmas breach in which hackers stole millions of customers’ credit- and debit-card records. The theft badly damaged the store chain’s reputation and profits.

Steinhafel, a 35-year veteran of the company and chief executive since 2008, also resigned from the board of directors, Target announced Monday.

"He was the public face of the breach. The company struggled to recover from it," said Cynthia Larose, chair of the privacy and security practice at the law firm Mintz Levin. "It’s a new era for boards to take a proactive role in understanding what the risks are."

The departure of Steinhafel, 59, suggests the company wants a clean slate as it wrestles with the fallout. But the resignation leaves a leadership hole at a time when the 1,800-store chain is facing many other challenges.

Egypt’s ex-army chief: Muslim Brotherhood will never return if he is elected president

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt’s former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, seen as certain to become the next president, says the Muslim Brotherhood will never return if he is elected, accusing it of using militant groups to destabilize the country.

Asked in the first TV interview of his campaign for elections this month, whether the group will no longer exist under his presidency, el-Sissi replied, "Yes, just like that."

"It’s not me that finished it, the Egyptians have. The problem is not with me," said el-Sissi, who last summer ousted Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who in 2012 became Egypt’s first democratically elected president.

He said the Brotherhood had been using Islamic militant groups as "cover, to fight from behind this or that group," referring to the campaign of militant violence since Morsi’s ouster.

Convict who wasn’t sent to prison for 13 years due to clerical error gets set free

CHARLESTON, Mo. (AP) -- Cornealious "Mike" Anderson spent 13 years free from prison due to a clerical error, then nearly a year behind bars when the mistake was caught. On Monday, he walked out of a southeast Missouri courtroom a free man again -- this time with no need to look over his shoulder.

Mississippi County Associate Circuit Judge Terry Lynn Brown needed just a 10-minute hearing before ruling that he was giving Anderson credit for time served for all 4,794 days between his conviction and when he was arrested last year. The judge granted Anderson his immediate freedom.

Anderson, 37, left the courthouse with his wife and 3-year-old daughter on one arm, his mother on the other, tears in all of their eyes.

"Very happy," Anderson said as he climbed into a sport utility vehicle for the ride home to suburban St. Louis and a planned family celebration. "My faith has always been in God. I’m just so thankful. That God for everybody."

Anderson was 23 when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison for his role in the robbery of a fast-food restaurant’s assistant manager. He told The Associated Press last month that he waited, and even asked about going to prison, but the order never came.

Pipeline backers, opponents jockey ahead of vote

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Supporters and opponents of the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline jockeyed for position ahead of an expected Senate vote on legislation authorizing immediate construction of the project.

An oil industry group that supports the pipeline launched a five-state ad campaign aimed at wavering senators, while an environmental group mobilized activists to urge lawmakers to vote against any attempt to force President Barack Obama to decide the pipeline’s fate.

The lobbying by outside groups came as Democrats and Republicans bickered over whether to allow a vote on a bipartisan bill to end years of delay and build the proposed pipeline from Canada to the United States.

Some Republicans said the vote should occur as an amendment to energy efficiency legislation that could reach the Senate floor as soon as Tuesday.