When two women tried to register as a married couple in Aruba last year, people on the Dutch island threw rocks at them, slashed their car tires and protested against gay unions outside Parliament.

The hostility eventually led Charlene and Esther Oduber-Lamers to flee the Caribbean territory, which refused to recognize their marriage even though the couple legally wed in the Netherlands four years ago.

"I couldn't sleep anymore," Charlene, a 33-year-old Aruba native, said in a telephone interview from Holland, where the couple has lived since November. "I felt like maybe they wanted to kill us."

The strong emotions ignited by the couple's legal fight seeking to force Aruba's government to recognize their marriage has underlined a deep cultural rift between progressive Holland and its conservative former colony.

"If we accept gay marriage, would we next have to accept Holland's marijuana bars and euthanasia?" asked Ruben Trapenberg, a spokesman for the Aruban government. "They have their culture, we have ours."

The case was a leading topic of discussion on Aruba until recently, when it was eclipsed by the search for Natalee Holloway, a teenager from Alabama who vanished May 30 after leaving a bar with three local men on the final night of a high school graduation trip to the island.

After the Public Registry rejected the Oduber-Lamerses' marriage certificate, they filed a lawsuit charging Aruba's government with discrimination. An island court ruled that their union should be recognized.

The government appealed, but it was rejected last week. The government has three months to take the case to Holland's Supreme Court, which it has promised to do. Aruba, lying just off Venezuela's northern coast, was once a Dutch colony but is now an autonomous republic within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Dutch law requires the kingdom's three parts -- the Netherlands, Aruba and the Dutch Antilles -- to recognize each other's legal documents, including marriage certificates. But Aruba's government contends the law also grants the island self-rule, thus allowing it to ignore same-sex marriages from the Netherlands, which legalized such unions in 2001.

"We can't let this become a precedent," said Hendrik Croes, a lawyer for Aruba's government. "Gay marriage is against the civil code and Aruban morals."

Despite strong ties to the Netherlands, which is one of Europe's most socially progressive nations, Aruba is more culturally in tune with Latin America.

While Dutch is the island's official language, most Arubans speak Papiamento, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. More than 80 percent of the island's 97,000 people are Roman Catholic, and the largest number of immigrants come from Venezuela and Colombia.

Few people are openly gay on the island, and locals say many of those move to the Netherlands rather than face persecution at home.

"Being gay is still taboo in Aruba," said Guisette Croes, 41, a lesbian who owns a music store in the capital, Oranjestad, and is not related to the government's lawyer. "You have Dutch law here, but you also have conservative Latin American people."

Charlene Oduber-Lamers said she knew that winning recognition of her marriage would not be easy.

Not having their marriage recognized meant that Esther, a 38-year-old Dutch citizen, could not get health benefits from Charlene's job or stay on the island for more than six months a year under Aruban immigration laws.

It also meant that she would not get custody of the couple's 2-year-old daughter should something happen to Charlene, who gave birth to the child with an implanted egg from Esther.

After the couple filed their lawsuit, people began to heckle them and make critical remarks on the street, in the supermarket and at Charlene's job at the Aruban Department of Social Affairs. Someone threw rocks at them, and their tires were slashed outside a hotel.

The couple received public support from Dutch gay rights groups and a liberal political party in the Netherlands, D'66, but local organizations kept a much lower profile. The main Aruban gay rights group declined to comment, saying it did not want to draw attention.

Charlene said stress over the case caused her to have anxiety attacks.

"I never imagined the situation would go this far," she said. "It's been very painful."

Esther, center, and Charlene Oduber-Lamers with their daughter Elisa, who is almost 2. Married in Holland, they could not register as such in Aruba.