Local Obituaries

‘Bible Trial’ attorney Bernard Mandler, who won 1960s case to ban prayers in Miami-Dade public schools, dies at 87

BIBLE TRIAL: Attorney Bernard Mandler ran his law firm in Miami Beach with University of Miami law school pal Harry Smith for 30 years.
BIBLE TRIAL: Attorney Bernard Mandler ran his law firm in Miami Beach with University of Miami law school pal Harry Smith for 30 years. Jeffrey Mandler

For attorneys, “The Bible Trial” was the hottest ticket in town in 1960.

With just three major networks broadcasting in black and white from outside the courtroom, seasoned lawyers clamored to get a gander inside at this young buck from the University of Miami law school who was poised to do battle with the Miami-Dade County School Board.

The American Jewish Congress asked Bernard Mandler to bring a lawsuit against the School Board to challenge religious prayers in schools on behalf of a suit filed by five parents: an atheist, a dentist and his wife, a Unitarian and an attorney.

Mandler, who died Friday afternoon at 87 in Miami Beach, found notoriety early — and by happenstance three years after he and UM buddy Harry Smith, two U.S. Navy men, opened their firm Smith and Mandler on the ninth floor of a Lincoln Road bank building in 1957.

The trial judge in “The Bible Trial” ruled that the New York prosecutor who was to try the controversial case could not do so because he was not admitted to the Florida Bar. The task fell to Mandler.

“The most prominent figures in the trial have been Ivy-leaguish Bernard S. Mandler, representing four of the plaintiffs, and gray-headed E.F.P. Brigham, whose questions on theological points on behalf of the intervenors have evoked images of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial 35 years ago,” read a July 23, 1960, Miami Herald article about the case, which was officially called Chamberlin vs. Dade County.

School officials argued that the Bible was read daily in classrooms. Former students testified about Christmas and Easter programs in the schools. Mandler argued that the schools’ practices were sectarian in nature and that schoolchildren were compelled to participate in or observe them.

Mandler won a partial victory initially. Easter and Christmas observances were abolished in Miami-Dade schools. The Florida Supreme Court upheld non-sectarian Bible reading, however. Mandler and his clients appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they prevailed in 1965 when the court ruled that no school can require prayer sessions or Bible reading.

Three years earlier, Mandler debated the issue with Pat Tornillo, then-president of the Dade County Classroom Teachers Association.

Mandler, who was not observant, would become chairman of the Community Relations Committee of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and chosen to meet with Pope John Paul II for the pontiff’s September 1987 visit to Miami because of his civic work in matters of civil rights and interfaith partnerships.

The lawyer argued that removing prayer from schools would boost church attendance.

“When you eliminate religious practices in the public schools, the children will be going back to their own churches,” he said at the debate.

With his courtroom victory, Mandler’s career was established.

“It gave me an exhilaration. It enabled me to appreciate that I could become a good trial lawyer,” Mandler said in a 1982 Miami Herald profile.

Mandler, who was born Dec. 19, 1926, in New York, moved to Miami in 1946 to attend UM. He graduated from its law school in 1951 and made a promise with fraternity mate Harry Smith. The two would become law partners.

The pair set up shop in the Flagship Bank on Miami Beach in 1957, and their firm lasted for 30 years. At the silver anniversary, the partners were honored by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce for a quarter-century of public service. At the time, Smith and Mandler boasted 18 lawyers, twice as many as any other firm on the Beach.

Public service for the firm’s attorneys was mandated. Lunch talk in the lounge more often than not was about the United Way, which the firm supported.

“We feel that it’s a contribution they have to make. It’s part of the totality of what we think makes a lawyer,” Mandler said in the 1982 Herald story.

Son Jeffrey Mandler, a partner in the Miami firm, Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez, remembers watching his father on the evening news every night during the Bible Trial.

“It was a fantastic opinion, a seminal case of church and state separation. The courthouse was packed. Having a father like that, we were drawn to law,” Mandler said. “My son [Nathan] is a lawyer, a third-generation graduate of the University of Miami.”

Mandler’s other son, Mitchell, is a partner at Becker & Poliakoff in Coral Gables.

“He gave us the love of the law and the love of public service and that is what he lived by, so that is why we are a family of lawyers,” Jeffrey Mandler said.

In addition to his sons and daughter, Lori Winters, and eight grandchildren, Mandler is survived by his wife of 64 years, Ellen, who was president of Hadassah for Miami-Dade County. Services will be held at 12:30 p.m. Monday at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels at Mount Nebo, 5900 SW 77th Ave., Kendall.

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