Court Finds DNA Collection Does Not Violate Inmates’ Religious Rights

By: Gerri L. Elder

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. ruled that the Bureau of Prisons’ practice of obtaining DNA samples from convicted felons does not infringe on the inmates’ religious freedom.

The Legal Times reported that inmate Russell Kaemmerling, who is serving time at a federal prison in Texas for conspiring to commit wire fraud, brought the unusual legal challenge.

Kaemmerling sued to stop the Bureau of Prisons from collecting his DNA. His lawyers argued that Kaemmerling believes the DNA collection process was a defilement of “God’s temple” and “tantamount to laying the foundation for the rise of the anti-Christ.”

Federal law required the Bureau of Prisons to collect DNA samples from inmates. The samples are generally use a bucal swab to collect saliva or a blood test. The Justice Department recently expanded the DNA collection requirements to include people arrested in connection with federal crimes and most immigrants detained by federal authorities.

Kaemmerling is an evangelical Christian. The basis of his lawsuit was collection of a DNA sample could result in his unwilling participation in activities prohibited by his religion, such as cloning experiments and stem cell research.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that Kaemmerling failed to prove collection of his DNA would substantially burden his exercise of religion.

The Court’s opinion, written by Chief Judge David Sentelle noted, “The government’s extraction, analysis, and storage of Kaemmerling’s DNA information does not call for Kaemmerling to modify his religious behavior in any way — it involves no action or forbearance on his part, nor does it otherwise interfere with any religious act in which he engages.”

Judge Karen Henderson and Judge Brett Kavanaugh joined Sentelle on the panel. In addition to considering the issue of religious freedom, the judges also briefly discussed Kaemmerling’s argument that the DNA collection process violated his Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection and against self-incrimination and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. They found that DNA collection caused no violation of Kaemmerling’s civil rights.

The panel reversed the lower court’s ruling that Kaemmerling had failed to exhaust the administrative process before filing his complaint. There are actually no administrative remedies that Kaemmerling could pursue because DNA collection of prisoners is required by federal law. The Bureau of Prisons had no authority to address his objection to the DNA Act.