ANNAPOLIS - A bill that would require Maryland's nonunion public school employees to pay a fee to education unions is on its way to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk after the state Senate gave it final approval Thursday.

The measure, which passed 34-13, would require local boards of education to negotiate with unions representing educators for a reasonable fee to be charged to nonmembers.

The rationale is that nonmembers are already benefiting from union representation, as they are covered under union-negotiated contracts. Nonmembers can also request a union representative at disciplinary hearings.

Opponents see it as tantamount to forcing public school employees to join unions.

"The fact is, we're forcing people to pay a fee they don't want to pay -- if they wanted to join the union, they'd join the union and pay dues," said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore.

"To use the power of government to force people to make personal choices is against everything we stand for."

However, the bill's sponsor says it merely creates a uniform state law to cover what most Maryland jurisdictions already do.

More than 70 percent of public school employees are already represented by a union, and 11 of Maryland's 24 school districts -- including Montgomery and Prince George's county schools -- already have local laws either allowing or requiring such fees. Those fees wouldn't need to be renegotiated under the bill.

"It's a statewide bill to help keep us from having different regulations, trying to make things even across the board," said sponsor Sen. Catherine Pugh, D-Baltimore City. "It also allows nonmembers to vote."

The bill does allow exemptions for people who have religious reasons to oppose joining a union. Those people would be required to pay the equivalent of the union fee to a nonreligious, nonunion charity.

The exemption for religious objection stems from a 1964 federal law that allows people who have religious objections to collective bargaining to be exempt from laws requiring union membership.

The bill doesn't specify what a person with a religious objection must do to qualify for an exemption. A sample exemption request letter posted on the conservative website Free Republic suggests attaching a letter from a pastor stating the religious objection.

The bill does not list denominations that qualify for a religious exemption. However, some states do just that. For instance, a Catholic teacher in Ohio was denied an exemption in 2007 because state law only allowed Seventh-Day Adventists and Mennonites to exempt themselves from union membership.