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GAY-STRAIGHT ALLIANCES (GSAs) IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Attempts to organize GSAs

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Quotation:

bullet"Regardless of a child's ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, sexual orientation, or physical status, all children have a right to safety. When victimization through bullying, verbal abuse, and physical violence is prevalent in a school, the entire school community experiences the consequences. " Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 1

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletOrganizing GSAs in:
bulletSalt Lake City, UT
bulletAnchorage, AK
bulletOrange County, CA
bulletBaton Rouge, CA
bulletKlein, TX
bulletBoyd County, KY

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Note:

The sections below discuss school districts that have opposed the formation of gay-straight alliances. It is important to realize that these are the exceptions.

bulletYear 2000: Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund reported on 2000-OCT-6 that "more than 700 student-organized GSA's" had been organized in the U.S.
bulletYear 2003: The Houston Chronicle has reported on 2003-JAN-22 that "some 1,700 high schools nationwide have GSAs." 2

The vast majority have been organized without serious opposition from the local school board. In fact, the pioneering cases described below have firmly established the right of students in most districts to organize GSAs. However, the right is not granted automatically. Many student clubs have to go through many hurdles before they obtain permission to organize. According to the ACLU, a common technique of school boards is to delay decisions until the end of the school year in the hopes that the problem will simply go away. 2

Few school boards will want to experience the disruption and expense that has happened as a result of court battles in the locations described below. Klein, TX is an apparent exception. There is speculation that the Klein Independent School District has refused to authorize a GSA in its high school because they want to be forced by a court order to give permission. This way, they could explain to irate taxpayers that they had no choice but to comply with the law. 2

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Salt Lake City, Utah:

According to AANEWS: In 1995, students at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah petitioned to form a Gay-Straight Alliance club. The state legislature, dominated by the Mormon Church, responded the following year by passing a law banning any school clubs that supposedly encourage criminal or delinquent conduct, bigotry, or sexual activity. Similar standards were incorporated in a 1997 set of guidelines adopted by the Utah State Board of Education.

High school officials in Salt Lake City went even further. Rather than permit the Gay-Straight Alliance group to meet as a sanctioned organization, the school board ordered all 46 non-curriculum clubs to disband. This was their only other financially-viable option under the Equal Access law. Victims of the ban included the Students Against Drunk Driving, Young Republicans and Young Democrats, and even a Bart Simpson fan club.

When asked about the selective bias against the gay club and in favor of Bible study groups, Utah Sen.  Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said that when the Equal Access Act was approved, it wasn't for "those sorts of groups." 3

In the resulting lawsuit, 4 U.S. District Judge Bruce S. Jenkins ruled that the board violated the Equal Access Act. However, because the board announced that their policy and a new state-wide regulation prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and censorship of gay-positive viewpoints, he ruled that the violation was not ongoing and that the First Amendment was not violated. The students appealed.

Since the board's new policy did not applied to non-curricular clubs like the GSA, the students decided to apply for approval of a school-sponsored curricular club. Called PRISM, it would discuss curricular subjects in terms of the experiences and contributions of lesbians and gay men. As expected, the board denied PRISM's application. This resulted in a second federal lawsuit, 5 and an injunction which required that the board allow the PRISM club to meet. The District filed its own appeal against the injunction.

In 2000-SEP-5, the Salt Lake City School Board reversed its decision and decided to allow all student clubs, including the GSAs, to meet at their schools.

Stephen Clark of the ACLU's Utah branch said: "We applaud the school board for putting students first again and recognizing that banning these clubs has harmed all students.  Now everyone wins - all the student clubs are back, the gay-supportive clubs are free to express themselves and help make a safer school environment, and education is back in the front seat." The principals settled the two lawsuits, and withdrew the appeals. 6

In its press release on this case, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (Lambda) stated, somewhat optimistically, that: "...the last remaining court battles over groups like GSA's have ended on the national scene."

Lambda Staff Attorney David S. Buckel said: "The trend in schools is to recognize that gay-supportive student groups promote better and safer schools. The lesson from Salt Lake City is in big block letters on the chalk board: do not harm your students to block a gay-supportive club and do not spend hundreds of thousands in education dollars defending that harm. Do the right thing from the beginning." 6

We suspect that during the five years when all extra-curricular clubs were banned in the school district, that animosity against gays and lesbians -- and perhaps even gay bashing -- probably increased at the schools. School board, municipal government, and legislatures act as a type of moral guide to the public. When one of them announces that their policy is to discriminate against lesbians and gays, hatred and violence against sexual minorities will probably increase.

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Anchorage, Alaska:

The Gay/Straight Alliance, was formed on 1996-NOV-13 at the Dimond High School, in Anchorage, AL. It is a support group for gays, lesbians and their straight friends. Controversy immediately broke out at the school. A varsity hockey player was caught tearing down a club poster. His playing rights were suspended for one game. Controversy spread to the community, largely as a result of an "outpouring of vitriol" by local radio talk show hosts. Finally, debate surfaced at the next school board meeting. Member Kathi Gillespie asked the board to review the types of clubs that are allowed in the high schools.  Another board member, David Werdal, wondered if the club could be banned under a school board policy that prohibits clubs that distract students from learning.

Twenty one people, all adults, signed up to make presentations at the meeting. Only a few were allowed to speak in the time allotted. As expected, speeches ranged from full support to outright condemnation. A parent, Gary Horton, said "This particular club could stir things up to the detriment of the entire community...This is displeasing to God. Listen with your hearts to a real sensitive issue." A board member of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians And Gays, Fred Hillman, recommended that a 3 year old Massachusetts state education policy be adopted: "They're making schools safe for gay and lesbian students...Massachusetts is a pioneer in this area. Alaska, a state of pioneers, should be leading this issue."

The Anchorage Daily News came out in support of the club: "Take all those adolescent pressures and apply them to a teenager who's having some doubts whether he or she conforms to our culture's heterosexual ideal, and you have the recipe for real psychological torment. It's no wonder gay teens generally are considered to be a high risk for suicide...The federal 'Equal Access' law was passed to accommodate conservative religious groups that wanted to host Bible club meetings on school property. Those Bible clubs have a legitimate place in the extra-curricular school scene - and so do those who want to promote understanding and tolerance for gay people. The Dimond High Gay/Straight Alliance should be left to do it's work in peace." 

Steve Williams, an Anchorage resident, wrote a letter to the editor which was titled "HATRED JUSTIFIES GAY CLUB". He writes in part: "The venom that has been spewing forth on local radio stations concerning students who wish to be associated with the Gay/Straight Alliance at Dimond High School is positive proof of the absolute need of just such a club." He expressed concern that some adults want to limit students' rights of free assembly. He referred to a recent finding that 30% of teen suicides are by gays and lesbians. Williams wrote "This is fully indicative as to why this club should not only be allowed, but encouraged. The school district should take a pro-active role in helping the group to hang in there and stand strong against this incredible meanness." 

On 1997-FEB-10, the school board held a meeting at which the public could give input. The topic was "should all clubs be allowed, or just academic clubs? And if all clubs are OK, should students be required to get permission from their parents to join them?" As expected, the only club that received attention from the public was the Gay/Straight Alliance. Frank Murphy, a youth pastor at a local church said: "Keep the non-academic clubs open, but shut the Dimond club down." Alice Lawrence, the head of a local charity, said "I'm appalled at what the devil is trying to bring into the school system." Elliott Dennis and Norman Schlitter, co-chairman of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and Bisexuals said that support groups like the one under discussion are important for young teens, and that they shouldn't have to get parental permission to join. Dennis said: "If you pass this [resolution], some of those [gay] students will continue to lead a lonely life." 

The Anchorage School Board voted to continue allowing non-curriculum clubs, including the Dimond High Gay/Straight Alliance. However, students will have to have parental permission slips signed before they can join. These forms must include the club's statement of purpose. 7 [Author's note: It seems obvious that the students who are most in need of the support from a gay/lesbian group are those who come from homophobic families. These are the ones who would be least likely to get permission from their parents to attend.]

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Orange County, California:

The El Modena High School in Orange County, CA has at least 38 student-led groups which enjoy full privileges. They include the "Asian Club, Black Student Union, Christian Club, Earth Club, Eighties Club, Equestrian Club, Gentlemen's Club, Girls' League and Juggling Club." 8 They are allowed to meet in rooms on campus, to use the school's bulletin boards, to appear in the Yearbook, and to be present in the annual club recruitment night. 

The student-led Gay-Straight Alliance had unsuccessfully tried to get permission to hold meetings on campus since the beginning of the school term in 1999-SEP. The school officials continually stonewalled the students' requests. 

On NOV-18, Kendra Huard of the People For the American Way addressed the board, asking that the club be authorized immediately. "We also call on the board to begin healing the wounds they have created in the community by their handling of this matter. Heal the wounds by explaining to the community that every student in this school district has the right to be treated with respect and dignity. Heal the wounds by explaining that every high school non-curricular club has the legal right to meet, whatever some members of the community may think about a particular club. And heal the wounds by setting an example of tolerance and mutual respect for others to follow." 9

On 1999-NOV-29, members of the club filed a lawsuit "Anthony Colin, et al. v. Orange Unified School District, et. al, case no. SA CV 99-1461" in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Southern Division. 10 They asked the judge for a preliminary injunction which would require the Orange Unified School District to allow the group to meet. The students are being represented by attorneys with People For the American Way Foundation, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Irell & Manella, LLP, a California law firm with offices in Los Angeles and Orange County. Myron Dean Quon, staff attorney for Lambda's Western Regional Office in Los Angeles commented: "It is unfortunate that it is going to take a court order to get the school board to stop playing politics with their students' rights. But, apparently, these school officials need to learn the lesson that they are not above the law." Carole Shields, president of People For the American Way Foundation said: "The students have been denied their First Amendment and other legal rights throughout the fall semester.  That time can't be recovered. We are asking the court to act now so that no more time is lost and the students' rights aren't denied for an entire school year." 

On DEC-7, the school board voted 7 to 0 to deny the Alliance recognition as a student club. 11 The school board violated their own policy which states:  "The board shall not discriminate or deny access to any student initiated group on the basis of religious, political, philosophical or any other content to be addressed at such meetings."

U.S. District Court Judge David O Carter issued the injunction in 2000-FEB. He wrote: "Plaintiffs have been injured not only by the board's excessive delay but also by the inability to effectively address the hardships they encounter at school every day.'' 12 The attorneys for the school district have asked that the injunction be stayed so that it can be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Judy Anderson, mother of plaintiff Heather Zetin, said: "It's about who these kids are. It's about who they love. It's not about sex.'' 

The first meeting of the Alliance was scheduled for 2000-FEB-9. In the meantime, an unknown person or persons stuffed fliers into the lockers of some students. They showed two nearly-nude men embracing. A caption read "Come on El Mo, Don't be shy! Your either gay or you're bi!" Officials believe that the perpetrator is not an El Modena high school student.

On FEB-11, the school board cancelled all non-curricular club clubs at elementary and middle schools. According to AANEWS, "Ironically, thanks to a federal judge's preliminary injunction on behalf of the Gay-Straight Alliance, that group is meeting while other clubs are technically in violation of school board regulations." 13

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Baton Rouge, Louisiana:

The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has a policy to encourage high school students to participate in clubs. But "such organizations must be sponsored or approved by appropriate personnel at each individual school." In 1999-SEP, Martin Pfeiffer of the Gay Straight Alliance applied for recognition and the right to meet in high school campuses. In a clear violation of the Equal Access Act, his request was turned down. On 2000-FEB-10, the school board met:
bulletThey voted on a new policy which would have given all clubs, including the Gay Straight Alliance the right to meet. The vote was 6 to 4 in favor, but 7 affirmative votes were required for approval.
bulletThey voted on a motion to ban all extracurricular clubs, including service and religious groups. This would be the only constitutional method to prevent the Alliance from meeting. It was also turned down. 
bulletThey voted on a motion to delay any action. The petitioner wanted to investigate the possibility that the Alliance could be prohibited on the basis of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limits free speech in high schools if it would "encourage imminent lawless action."

Several students testified:

bulletMcKinley High senior Leslie Spillman said: "As a student in the school system ... I have been called dyke by cowards in the hallway, pushed into lockers, spit on, you name it...That is harmful to me.
bulletAlysia Chambers said: "I would rather have no noncurricular clubs and go with God than have all clubs and go against my God,
bullet"Several other students cried when they held up copies of the Bible and said that God says homosexuality is wrong. They argued such clubs shouldn't be allowed at schools at any cost."

Vice President Jackie Mims later said that she believed that a school could turn down the Alliance by stating that it might incite a crime against nature. State law criminalizes "the unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex or with an animal." The law had been declared unconstitutional as it pertains to consenting adults who are not engaged in prostitution. But the legality is unclear with reference to high school students. 14

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Klein, Texas:

IN 2002-OCT, Marla Dukler, a student at Klein High School, applied for permission to found a Gay-Straight Alliance at her school. Klein is located just north of Houston, TX. It would have been about the 1,700th GSA in the U.S. . In her application, she stated that the purpose of the group was: "to work toward ending anti-gay bias and homophobia in our school and to make our campus a welcoming, supportive, and safe environment for all students regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity." Her request should have been routinely approved, because the school has dozens of non-curricular student groups including clubs for: "bass fishers, bowlers, chess players, Christian athletes, and water skiers." Under the federal Equal Access law, the school is required to either approve the GSA or to shut down all student clubs. Dukler's request went unanswered. Three months later, Marla's father, Malcolm Dukler, spoke before the school board, but it also refused to authorize the alliance. Malcolm Dukler speculates that the board is waiting until it is ordered by the court to authorize the club so that they will be able to explain to irate taxpayers that it had no choice but to comply.  With the help of the ACLU, Marla is suing the Klein Independent School District, Superintendent Jim Surratt and Principal Pat Huff, This is the first such lawsuit in Texas. Four other GSAs have been organized in the Houston TX area without lawsuits. The complaint states that the board's decision: "violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Equal Access Act because their prohibition of the club is based on the content and the viewpoint of the speech of the clubs and its members." David George, president of the Houston chapter of the ACLU's said: "This law is crystal clear -- you have to allow the club. These are not clubs where illegal activity is going on, where anyone is engaging in any disruptive behavior. It is just students talking about issues." An interesting aspect to this case is that although no illegal activity would occur at the club meetings, there might well be advocacy in favor of illegal activity. Gay and lesbian sexual behavior is illegal in Texas. The law's constitutionality is currently being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court. Dave Feldman, attorney for Klein ISD, complained that the ACLU's action in filing a lawsuit is premature because the school district has not yet made a decision about the GSA and because there was no attempt to resolve the issue out of court. Ken Choe, staff attorney for the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project said: "We want to send a strong message to schools and school districts across the country that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth do have rights under federal law and those rights should be respected. The Constitution does not allow the school to pick and choose the kinds of speech that students can engage in. We find that the most common way schools try to defeat the attempts of students like Marla Dukler is just drag it out and eventually the school year will end." Meanwhile, students at two nearby Cypress-Fairbanks ISD high schools (Cypress Falls High School, and Jersey Village High School) are also asking for permission to start alliances . 2

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Boyd County, Kentucky:

The teacher-parent council at Boyd County High School had made two requests to the school board to allow the formation of a local GSA. Both were refused. During 2002-OCT, they voted 3-2 in favor of making a third request. By this time, the council had received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union which explained that they had violated the Equal Access Act, which requires all extracurricular clubs to be treated alike. The Boyd County School Board changed its position, and allowed the GSA to meet.

Scott Lively, president of Abiding Faith Ministries and an attorney from the Fundamentalist Christian Pro-Family Law Center said that adults in the county would prefer to have no clubs at all on campus rather to allow a gay-straight alliance to meet. In early 2002-NOV, more than 400 of the 990 students in Boyd Country stayed away from school as a protest the board's decision. On 2002-NOV-10, more than 2,000 people rallied to oppose the GSA in a church parking lot. The demonstration was organized by Rev. Tim York, pastor at the Heritage Temple Free Will Baptist Church in Cannonsburg KY, and president of the Boyd County Ministerial Association (BCMA). People signed petitions and donated money in support. York said "we are concerned about homosexuality being promoted in school time as a normal lifestyle."  According to the homosexual-positive Gay and Lesbian Political Action and Support Groups, "Members of the alliance did not attend the rally. Some have said they have been spat on, subjected to slurs, and threatened with violence. 'Homosexual kids always have it toughest. They're the ones who are ostracized for being different,' said Tim Dail, 20, a Boyd County High graduate who attended the rally even though he opposed its message." Addressing the gathering, Scott Lively suggested that a conspiracy of pro-gay groups were promoting the GSA, but had miscalculated by coming to Boyd County. He said: "Normally you see these clubs only going in where the homosexuals already have significant political power and where the population has already been indoctrinated with their propaganda." According to PlanetOut.com, the GSA was not organized by a conspiracy of adult gay groups; it was formed by about 30 gay and straight students. Students Douglas Duncil and Bretnie Hall said they are considering a transfer to another school because of the alliance's existence. Duncil said: "It's very unfair...The homosexuals, or whatever you want to call them, seem to get more rights throughout our school." The GSA released a statement saying: "We understand that some students may not agree with our viewpoints. We ask that they simply respect our right to meet. We ask for tolerance if acceptance is not part of other's belief systems." Matt Coles, spokesperson for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said: "If Boyd County High School needed any more proof that its students need a safe space to be themselves and talk about sexual orientation issues, the hostility and fear behind these actions has made it abundantly clear."

Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has begun "seeing focused efforts by right-wing groups to scare school districts away from providing support to GLBT students in their community...We hope they will try and learn more about why this GSA was necessary, and understand that some of their fellow classmates need the kind of support that a GSA can provide."

As a temporary expedient, the Board has banned all extra-curricular clubs on campus. Teresa Cornette, a member of the school board, said that the clubs had become a barrier to student learning. She explained: "[We are] temporarily putting on hold all clubs until they can come up with a definition, a mission, and a goal, and show how it's aligned to the curriculum. I don't think we had any other choice but to do that... I would hope that we can reinstate all of our curriculum clubs and that all the other clubs -- for instance the GSA, the Bible Club, the Pep Club, whatever -- they could have their club. I'm hoping that it's outside of our school district [and] they can meet somewhere else and have their clubs, because these things are important."

Scott Lively has recommended a novel approach by which the school board might reinstate the clubs while legally banning the GSA. He suggested that the school adopt a pro-civility curriculum that discourages bullying and harassment, but which teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong. That way, the GSA would lose its non-curricular status. It would become a curricular club and lose its protection under the Equal Access Act. Lively said: "Our strategy of going forward with this curriculum [is] a novel legal strategy that potentially would be challenged by the left. I believe it would prevail in court and set a model for the whole nation to follow, but nevertheless this school board is trying to protect its budget." Meanwhile, a church across the street from the high school has offered to host the school's Bible Club. 15 to 19

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References:

  1. "School Health Guidelines to Prevent Unintentional Injuries and Violence," Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2001-DEC-7, at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/
  2. Lucas Wall, "ACLU sues Klein school on behalf of lesbian student," Houston Chronicle, 2003-JAN-22, at: http://www.chron.com/cs/ 
  3. "Gay club in California focuses debate on Bible groups, Equal Access Act," AANEWS, 2000-FEB-13
  4. East High Gay/Straight Alliance v. Board of Education, No. 2:98CV193J
  5. East High PRISM Club v. Seidel, No. 2:00-CV-0311K
  6. Lambda news release, 2000-OCT-6, at: http://www.youth.org/loco/
  7. News reports from the Anchorage Daily News, on 1996-NOV-26, 27 & 29; and 1997-FEB-11
  8. News release from the People for the American Way (PFAW), 1999-DEC-29
  9. "Statement in Support of Gay-Straight Alliance at El Modena High School," 1999-NOV-18, at: http://www.pfaw.org/news/press
  10. The legal complaint of 1999-NOV-19 is at: http://www.pfaw.org/courts/orangecountybrief-991124.pdf This is an Acrobat PDF file. You can obtain a free software to read these files from Adobe.
  11. "School Board Votes Against Student Gay-Straight Club at El Modena High," 1999-DEC-8, 1999 at: http://www.pfaw.org/news/press//show.cgi?article=944680196
  12. "Gay-Straight Alliance Students Sue Orange County High School,"1999-NOV-24 at: http://www.pfaw.org/news/press//show.cgi?article=943483300
  13. "Gay club in California focuses debate on Bible groups, Equal Access Act," AANEWS, 2000-FEB-13
  14. Articles in the Baton Rouge Advocate at: http://www.theadvocate.com/ and http://www.theadvocate.com/
  15. David Alexander, "Kentucky GSA Protested Again (KY)," The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 2002-NOV-11, at: http://www.glsen.org/templates/news/record.html?section=12&record=1459
  16. Jim Brown, "Opposition Strong to Pro-Homosexual Club at Kentucky School: Christian Attorney: Opportunity for Pro-Family Activism to Make a Difference," Agape Press, 2002-NOV-12, at: http://headlines.agapepress.org/
  17. "Kentucky GSA protested," Gay and Lesbian Political Action and Support Groups, 2002-NOV-12, at: http://www.gaypasg.org/
  18. Jim Brown, "No Student Clubs, No Lawsuits ... No Problem," Agape Press, 2003-JAN-14, at: http://headlines.agapepress.org/
  19. Jim Brown and Allie Martin, "ACLU, Kentucky District Square Off on Issue of GSA Clubs in Schools," American Family Association, 2003-JAN-29, at: http://headlines.agapepress.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2003 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-FEB-10
Latest update: 2003-APR-2
Author: B.A. Robinson

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