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New York Court Okays Marriage Between Half-Uncle and Half-Niece

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Decision deeming marriage not incestuous seen as a “blow to the family”

The leader of New York’s Conservative Party says that his state’s appellate court made a "serious mistake" in validating the marriage between a man and his half-niece.

"This doesn’t help the family unit, and decisions like this are a blow to the family," said Michael Long, the chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State.

Long also told Aleteia that the New York Court of Appeals’ ruling constituted a "continued assault" on traditional marriage as understood in Western civilization.

"As far as I’m concerned, this is a sign that traditional marriage will constantly be under attack," Long said.

On Tuesday, the court unanimously overruled the Empire State’s prohibition between uncles and nieces marrying, saying that those unions are not the same as incestuous marriages between parents and their children, or siblings.

"Indeed, until 1893 marriages between uncle and niece or aunt and nephew, of the whole or half blood, were lawful in New York," Judge Robert Smith wrote in his opinion.

The court found that the marriage between 34-year-old Huyen Nuguyen of Vietnam and her 38-year-old husband, Vu Truong, of Rochester, N.Y., is not incestuous under New York’s Domestic Relations Law. The court said the marriage posed about the same genetic risk of birth defects as marriages between first cousins, which are legal in New York.

Nguyen was 19 when she married her half-uncle, Truong, who is her mother’s half-brother, in 2000. During a subsequent immigration case, which was sparked when Nguyen tried changing the conditions on her legal status, a judge said the marriage was invalid, and tried deporting Nguyen. The couple immediately appealed the ruling.

According to published reports, the couple’s lawyer, Michael Marszalkowski, focused on the state’s domestic relations law, which says that “a marriage is incestuous and void whether the relatives are legitimate or illegitimate between either: 1. An ancestor and a descendant; 2. A brother and sister of either the whole or half blood; 3. An uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew.”

Marszalkowski argued that the union was licit since half-uncles and nieces share the same level of genetic ties as first cousins, which amounts to both individuals having about one-eighth of the same DNA.

“It really was the equivalent of cousins marrying, which has been allowed in New York state for well over 100 years,” Marszalkowski told The New York Post.

The court said that the “genetic risk in a half-uncle, half-niece relationship is half what it would be if the parties were related by the full blood." Smith wrote that the statute’s authors likely "gave no particular thought to the half-uncle/half-niece question, since if they had they could easily have clarified it either way."

By comparison, the ban on parents marrying their children, or siblings marrying each other, "are grounded in the almost universal horror with which such marriages are viewed," Smith wrote, adding that there "is no comparably strong objection to uncle-niece marriages."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while condemning incest, does not specify the degree of familial relationship that constitutes an incestuous relationship. In Paragraph 2388, the Catechism says that incest "designates intimate relations between relatives or in-laws within a degree that prohibits marriage between them." It also notes that St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, "stigmatizes this especially grave offense" when he ordered the Christian community to deliver a man who was living with his father’s wife "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh."

The Catechism also says: "Incest corrupts family relationships and marks a regression toward animality."

The Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of the conservative group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, told the New York Daily News that he saw troubling aspects in the court’s decision. 

“If government’s only interest in marriage is who loves each other, than what logical stopping point is there?” McGuire said.

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