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Sandy Hook choir, Jennifer Hudson stir Super Bowl crowd with ‘America the Beautiful’

NEW ORLEANS — As 26 children in white polo shirts excitedly walked to center of the Superdome field and prepared to sing, a packed Super Bowl crowd revved up by a day of partying in the Big Easy fell silent.

The chorus from Sandy Hook Elementary School, nearly two months removed from a deadly shooting rampage, joined Jennifer Hudson to deliver a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful” on Sunday that had some players on the sideline and countless fans in the stands on the verge of tears.

Judging by the responses on social media, the performance appeared destined to become one of the most poignant memories of the Super Bowl, regardless of what played out in the game.

Obama: Scouts should admit gay members

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Sunday that gays should be allowed in the Boy Scouts and women should be allowed in military combat roles, weighing in on two storied American institutions facing proposals to end long-held exclusions.

The president’s comments in a pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS come ahead of this week’s meeting of the Boy Scouts’ national executive board. A proposal to open up the Scouts’ membership to gays is expected to be discussed and possibly voted on at the gathering in Texas.

The Boy Scouts emphatically reaffirmed the no-gays policy just seven months ago, but announced last week they were considering changing the stance. Instead of mandatory exclusion of gays, the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue — either maintaining the exclusion or opening up their membership.

The White House said in a statement last August that Obama opposed the gay ban. Obama, like presidents for the last century, serves as honorary president of the group. The president’s comment Sunday was his first since the group announced it was considering a policy change.

“My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does in every institution and walk of life,” Obama said. “The Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives. And I think nobody should be barred from that.”

Afghan peace effort fraught with mistrust

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan peace effort is foundering, fraught with mistrust and confusion among key players even though the hard-line Taliban militants show signs of softening and their reclusive, one-eyed leader made a surprise offer to share power in a post-war Afghanistan.

The U.S. and its allies hope the peace process, which began nearly two years ago, will gain traction before most international forces withdraw from the country in fewer than 23 months. But although the Taliban appear more ready to talk than ever before, peace talks remain elusive because of infighting among a rising number of interlocutors — all trying to get some kind of negotiations started.

Members of the Taliban are in contact with representatives from 30 to 40 different countries, according to senior U.S., Afghan and other officials The Associated Press interviewed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, the relationship among the key players — the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan — is marked by distrust that keeps tugging momentum away from the peace process.

Many of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive contacts with the Taliban.

Finding a path to the negotiating table will be a topic when Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan President Asif Zardari hold a series of meetings beginning today with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

By wire sources