In an unusual challenge to the Bureau of Prison’s practice of extracting DNA samples from convicted felons, a federal appeals court ruled today that the process does not infringe federal prisoners’ religious freedom.
Russell Kaemmerling, who was convicted of conspiring to commit wire fraud and is being held in a federal prison in Texas, sued to block the BOP from collecting his DNA on the grounds that it amounted to a defilement of “God’s temple” and was “tantamount to laying the foundation for the rise of the anti-Christ.”
By law, the BOP is required to collect DNA samples from prisoners, typically via a blood sample or a mouth swab to collect saliva. The Justice Department recently expanded its DNA collection to include citizens arrested in connection with federal crimes and many immigrants detained by federal authorities.
Kaemmerling, an evangelical Christian, argued that collection of his DNA information could result in his unwilling participation in activities against his religion, including cloning experiments and stem-cell research.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that Kaemmerling failed to show that his religious exercise was substantially burdened. "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,” the court ruled in an opinion penned by Chief Judge David Sentelle.
The panel -- Sentelle was joined by Judge Karen Henderson and Judge Brett Kavanaugh -- spent much less time dispatching Kaemmerling’s claims that the 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.
Kaemmerling did win a small victory, though. The panel reversed the lower court’s ruling that he had failed to exhaust the administrative process before filing his complaint. Turns out, there are no administrative remedies “because the BOP lacks authority to provide Kaemmerling any relief or to take any action whatsoever in response to his complaint challenging enforcement of the DNA Act,” Sentelle wrote.