However, Section 16 addresses only one of the two concepts that would later be included in the 1st Amendment: the free exercise of religion. It did not mention the other concept: prohibiting an establishment of an official governmental religion.
Virginia’s constitution was the first one written by and for an independent American state, and it became a model for many state constitutions that followed. Over the course of that same year, New Jersey, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all passed Declarations of Rights or constitutions that proclaimed the right, privilege, or duty of all men to worship God in the manner most suitable to their own consciences. New Jersey and North Carolina, however, gave full civil and political protections only to those professing the Protestant religion. Delaware and Maryland required a profession of the Christian religion in order to be assured the full complement of rights. And Pennsylvania, the most liberal of these five, required only that a man “acknowledges the being of a God” in order to be fully protected by law. By contrast, the Virginia Constitution promised the rights of conscience to “all men” without qualification, and made no further discriminations elsewhere in the document.
Madison’s fullest explication and defense of religious freedom came several years later, and in defense of that same provision in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. In 1785 Madison penned, anonymously, his celebrated “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” in which he quotes liberally from his own words in the Declaration of Rights. Madison was remonstrating against a bill pending in the Virginia Assembly which many at the time viewed as commonplace and uncontroversial. The bill proposed a general tax to fund “teachers of the Christian religion,” and it did not even give preferential treatment to any one denomination. Other state constitutions, such as those in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, had given their legislatures explicit powers to promote religion in this way. Virginia’s Declaration of Rights had guaranteed to everyone the “free exercise” of religion, but it was silent on the question whether or not the state could promote religion in any way. Madison objected to any religious assessments because it would essentially mean that certain citizens would be compelled, as taxpayers, to fund Christian instruction, even if they were non-Christian.