PASSING through the displays at the drugstore this week, I noticed an abundance

of Father's Day cards targeted at nontraditional dads.

People like "The Man Who Raised Me" or "The Person I Always Thought of as Dad" or "The Man Who Married My Mom" or even "My Biological Dad."

There was also a wide selection of African-American-themed cards that made it abundantly clear just how very important it was to honor fatherhood in the black community.

Clearly, fathers are fundamental - not optional accessories or casual acquaintances. And that's especially true for boys.

Sometimes, though, boys don't have the luxury of a father, biological or otherwise. There may be no Daddy taking them to the Phillies game. No Grandpa waiting to teach them how to fish. No Uncle expert at hoisting them on his broad shoulders. Not even a much older brother, willing to share his electronic games.

There might be no one, except a group of men who ask only one question, with open arms: Would you like to join?

GENERATIONS of boys have said yes, especially in this City of Brotherly Love. But now they're in trouble and are fighting to stay in their beautiful headquarters on Winter Street, the one they built and have maintained at their own expense for almost a century. The one that allows them to keep helping, keep caring for and keep inspiring those sons-by-proxy.

How fitting that it's happening around Father's Day.

This week, in federal court, the Boy Scouts are trying to prove that the city is unfairly targeting them because of their refusal to accept openly gay members or troop leaders.

They argue that they're being discriminated against because of a politically unpopular "viewpoint," something that the Constitution and a bunch of Supreme Court justices specifically prohibited. And to prove it, they're providing evidence that while the city is bent on evicting the Scouts from city-owned property, it's willing to turn a blind eye to other organizations that do the same thing.

It's not necessary to list all of the groups that have sweetheart deals with the city. Suffice it to say that the only one that seems to have run afoul of City Hall is the one that provides a safe haven for boys and young men, that teaches them the meaning of both independence and interdependence, that gives them valuable skills, lifelong friendships and, in many cases, the only adult male role models they'll ever have.

In a town that's forced to close pools and libraries, the Scouts are a lifeline.

But that's not enough for some people. The reason this organization has raised the hackles of the city lawyers is that it has the audacity to presume that sexual orientation is irrelevant, and that little boys don't need to trumpet their preference (or have it shoved in their faces by other Scouts, or their leaders).

The truth is that the Boy Scouts don't force kids or troop leaders to submit to a "sexual orientation" test before they can join. They don't ask if they prefer Liza Minnelli to G.I. Joe. They don't ask - but they also don't expect anyone to tell.

That appears to be the problem. The city has decided to be an advocate for the most radical element of the gay community, which feels it's better to eliminate a benefit for the majority of kids (even those who might be gay but don't need to wear the rainbow on their sleeves) so that a vocal and shortsighted minority can be placated.

Thankfully, this is an issue that cuts across the usual battle lines. I have spoken with a number of gay men who feel that while Don't Ask, Don't Tell needs to be eliminated in the military, it's completely unfair to force the Scouts to bend to the political will of a group that cares only about its own narrow interests and not the welfare of 8-year-old boys. It is unconscionable to deprive children of - in many cases - the only real compass they have in this chaotic world.

These are kids - and what does sex have to do with it?

And how does the city justify not going after all those other groups that have their own restrictions, including my own church, that also get - properly - special city privileges? The answer so far seems to be "we have wide discretion in our funding choices," which basically translates as "Um, can we get back to you on that?"

They need to get a better answer. Or maybe a conscience.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer.